Monthly Archives: April 2017

How To Wisely Choose and Buy a New Computer

We are now into 2012, and your old computer just quit. Do you fix it or buy a new computer? If the computer is 5 years old or older, then probably buying a new computer is the better strategy. Many computers manufactured 5 to 9 years ago have hardware components that fail mandating replacement of the computer. Please read on to understand how to buy the best computer for your needs.

The first decisions to make in buying a new computer are very basic. By answering these questions you determine your basic purchase strategy:

1. Please ask yourself “How much can I spend?” The computer prices range from $200 to $400, $450 to $800, and $900 and up.

2. Next determine the computer type (or style) that works best for you. The types of computers are desktop, laptop, and tablet. These types of computers differ in their size, portability, and functionality. Desktop computers are the least portable. They are good for using multiple displays and heavy workloads. Laptops vary in size and portability. The big ones have 17-inch display making them luggable for occasional trips. Big laptops have most of the capabilities of a desktop but the computing horsepower is lower than a desktop in order to conserve laptop battery power. Similarly, the display is smaller with lower resolution than displays used with desktop computers. Tablet computers are the most portable. They can do a lot, but with a much smaller display. The tablets are a powerful, portable information tool that is one step above a smartphone.

3. Finally, the timeless question is: Do I buy an Apple or another computer? The other computer main selections are Windows 7 operating system or Android operating system computers. There are also Linux computers. Linux is free General Public License software operating system. Linux computers are equivalent for everyday users to Windows and Apple computers. The single difference between Linux and Windows is that with a Linux computer you only pay for the computer hardware which is a huge savings over Apple and Windows computers.

The market for Apple computers is tightly controlled. This means that Apple computers work very well with few problems. They are seldom attacked by malicious software. Everything an enthusiastic Apple owner says about their Apple is true. They are also beautiful looking computers. The down side is that they are expensive. When an Apple does malfunction, you have a big problem. If the Apple computer is under warranty, then you schedule a visit to the Apple store and wait in line to get it fixed. Also, you pay a lot for the repair.

In contrast Windows 7 computers are like the Wild West. In the Wild West anything can and does happen. There are many competing hardware and software products for Windows 7 computers. Windows 7 computers are the most malware, spyware, and virus attacked computers. Because there are more Windows computers sold than any other computers, Windows computers are the biggest target to attack. Apple computers also get viruses, but much less often than Windows computers. Windows computers can be cheap computers but they are not cheaper than Linux computers.

4. The final question is: What computer manufacturer do you like? Each manufacturer has its approach to selling computers. My preference is manufacturers that do not add fancy frills beyond the basics that come with Windows or the computer operating system. Most of the frills try to sell you something, provide functions that a redundant with the operating system, they occupy screen space getting in the way of what you are doing, and they overload and slow down the computer. For example, HP computers are like Big MACs, they taste great but come with a lot of software fat. Lenovo computers are like a bank vault. They secure your data but are miserable to fix because of the security. It seems that all computers come with an annoying “dock” or application launcher. It takes up a lot of screen space and really adds little beyond what Windows itself provides. It is always cheaper to purchase a package than to build a custom computer. Purchasing custom computer parts is always more expensive than buying a packaged system from a manufacturer because the manufacturers purchase computer components in such high volume.

Once your basic strategy is determined, then it is time to find a computer. The approach here is to use the Internet to perform the initial shopping and then go to the store to make the final decision and purchase. Please go to the web site of a computer retailer near you such as Best Buy or Staples. Search their site based on the type (or style) of computer that works best for you. The site should produce a list of computers from which to choose. Sort them by “Best Selling” and check the “Customer Reviews”. Please determine how the price compares to your budget. Most retail store sites permit comparing the features of three computers side by side. Carefully select three computers for comparison.

This approach was used to compare from one retailer three desktop computers moderately priced. They ranged from $429.99 to $699.99. The $429.99 computer used a 3.3 GHz Intel i3 CPU chip, had 6 GB RAM, and a 1 TB disk drive. The 549.99 computer used an AMD 2.4 GHz CPU chip, had 8 GB RAM, and had a slower 5,400 rpm 1.5 TB drive. The $699.99 computer used an Intel 3.0GHz i5 CPU chip, had 6 GB RAM and a 7,200 rpm 1 TB drive. The differences between these systems are not likely to make the most expensive system perform that noticeably better to a user than the least expensive system. As long as the hardware features are generally in the same range the performance seems to be the same for each computer.

All systems used the latest DDR3 RAM. The computer with 8 GB of RAM may perform better than those computers with 6 GB of RAM. One thing is certain; all these computers would be decidedly faster than a Windows XP system with 2 GB of RAM. While special performance test programs can measure the performance difference between a 2.4 GHz AMD CPU chip computer and a 3.3 GHz Intel i5 CPU chip computer, people barely notice the difference. What people do notice is that AMD chip computers usually are cheaper by $100 or more than Intel CPU chip computers.

The Windows Performance Index is a measure of the combined performance of all the components of a Windows Vista or a Windows 7 computer. The Windows Performance Index is a single number that varies between 1 and 7.9. Low end systems have Windows Performance Index numbers in the 3.4 to 4.5 range. A computer with a 3.4 score perform the same as a computer with a 4.5 score to a human. To see a performance difference the Windows Performance Index would need to go from a 4.5 to a 7.5.

The Windows Performance Index is not mentioned in any advertising to my knowledge. It is found on Windows 7 computers by opening START, clicking the right mouse button on the COMPUTER menu selection and then selecting PROPERTIES from the drop down menu that appears. To see Windows Performance Index you would need to have a store sales person fire up the computer and help you view it.

Apple computers usually have hardware operates at slower speeds and has smaller capacities than Windows computers. The Apple computers perform as well as or better than their Windows competitors because they use a different and tightly controlled operating system. The software interaction with the hardware makes up for the slower Apple hardware.

The final comparison area is in the display. Monitors today use Light Emitting Diode (LED) backlighting. The LEDs use little power and should last seemingly forever. Monitor physical size contributes to visibility. A character on a 14-inch monitor is smaller than the same character on a 24-inch monitor. The bigger monitor images are more easily viewed. Monitors resolution is expressed in horizontal by vertical dots or pixels. Typically they are something like 1600 by 900 dots. Monitors with a larger number of dots of vertical resolution have a better display. Often monitors will be advertised as 1080p. The 1080p resolution is 1080 dots of vertical resolution with each line refreshed on each scan cycle. On a 1600 by 1200 monitor you can see a full 8.5 by 11 inch page when it is viewed at full size or 100% zoom. Monitors with 900 dots vertical resolution often cut off the bottom of the page when it is viewed at full size.

The final bit of wisdom to consider in purchasing a new computer is not to purchase the most expensive computer. Here is why. A client asked me to get him a computer. At the Dell web site I configured a computer with what seemed to be modest features. This computer cost $3,000. At Costco they offered a computer package that had somewhat lower performance features for under $1,000. If the client purchased a new $1,000 computer every year for three years, at the end of three years he would have better computer than if he purchased the $3,000 Dell computer. Only purchase the most expensive computer if you must absolutely have the features and performance it provides. Otherwise stay with more moderately priced computers and purchase them more often. Buying two $400 computers is better than going for a single $800 computer in the long run.

Forty years of internet, how the world can change forever

Towards the end of the summer of 1969 – a few weeks after the moon landings, a few days after Woodstock, and a month before the first broadcast of Monty Python’s Flying Circus – a large grey metal box was delivered to the office of Leonard Kleinrock, a professor at the University of California in Los Angeles. It was the same size and shape as a household refrigerator, and outwardly, at least, it had about as much charm. But Kleinrock was thrilled: a photograph from the time shows him standing beside it, in requisite late-60s brown tie and brown trousers, beaming like a proud father.

Had he tried to explain his excitement to anyone but his closest colleagues, they probably wouldn’t have understood. The few outsiders who knew of the box’s existence couldn’t even get its name right: it was an IMP, or “interface message processor”, but the year before, when a Boston company had won the contract to build it, its local senator, Ted Kennedy, sent a telegram praising its ecumenical spirit in creating the first “interfaith message processor”. Needless to say, though, the box that arrived outside Kleinrock’s office wasn’t a machine capable of fostering understanding among the great religions of the world. It was much more important than that.

It’s impossible to say for certain when the internet began, mainly because nobody can agree on what, precisely, the internet is. (This is only partly a philosophical question: it is also a matter of egos, since several of the people who made key contributions are anxious to claim the credit.) But 29 October 1969 – 40 years ago next week – has a strong claim for being, as Kleinrock puts it today, “the day the infant internet uttered its first words”. At 10.30pm, as Kleinrock’s fellow professors and students crowded around, a computer was connected to the IMP, which made contact with a second IMP, attached to a second computer, several hundred miles away at the Stanford Research Institute, and an undergraduate named Charley Kline tapped out a message. Samuel Morse, sending the first telegraph message 125 years previously, chose the portentous phrase: “What hath God wrought?” But Kline’s task was to log in remotely from LA to the Stanford machine, and there was no opportunity for portentousness: his instructions were to type the command LOGIN.

To say that the rest is history is the emptiest of cliches – but trying to express the magnitude of what began that day, and what has happened in the decades since, is an undertaking that quickly exposes the limits of language. It’s interesting to compare how much has changed in computing and the internet since 1969 with, say, how much has changed in world politics. Consider even the briefest summary of how much has happened on the global stage since 1969: the Vietnam war ended; the cold war escalated then declined; the Berlin Wall fell; communism collapsed; Islamic fundamentalism surged. And yet nothing has quite the power to make people in their 30s, 40s or 50s feel very old indeed as reflecting upon the growth of the internet and the world wide web. Twelve years after Charley Kline’s first message on the Arpanet, as it was then known, there were still only 213 computers on the network; but 14 years after that, 16 million people were online, and email was beginning to change the world; the first really usable web browser wasn’t launched until 1993, but by 1995 we had Amazon, by 1998 Google, and by 2001, Wikipedia, at which point there were 513 million people online. Today the figure is more like 1.7 billion.

Unless you are 15 years old or younger, you have lived through the dotcom bubble and bust, the birth of Friends Reunited and Craigslist and eBay and Facebook andTwitter, blogging, the browser wars, Google Earth, filesharing controversies, the transformation of the record industry, political campaigning, activism and campaigning, the media, publishing, consumer banking, the pornography industry, travel agencies, dating and retail; and unless you’re a specialist, you’ve probably only been following the most attention-grabbing developments. Here’s one of countless statistics that are liable to induce feelings akin to vertigo: on New Year’s Day 1994 – only yesterday, in other words – there were an estimated 623 websites. In total. On the whole internet. “This isn’t a matter of ego or crowing,” says Steve Crocker, who was present that day at UCLA in 1969, “but there has not been, in the entire history of mankind, anything that has changed so dramatically as computer communications, in terms of the rate of change.”

Looking back now, Kleinrock and Crocker are both struck by how, as young computer scientists, they were simultaneously aware that they were involved in something momentous and, at the same time, merely addressing a fairly mundane technical problem. On the one hand, they were there because of the Russian Sputnik satellite launch, in 1957, which panicked the American defence establishment, prompting Eisenhower to channel millions of dollars into scientific research, and establishing Arpa, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, to try to win the arms technology race. The idea was “that we would not get surprised again,” said Robert Taylor, the Arpa scientist who secured the money for the Arpanet, persuading the agency’s head to give him a million dollars that had been earmarked for ballistic missile research. With another pioneer of the early internet, JCR Licklider, Taylor co-wrote the paper, “The Computer As A Communication Device”, which hinted at what was to come. “In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face,” they declared. “That is rather a startling thing to say, but it is our conclusion.”

On the other hand, the breakthrough accomplished that night in 1969 was a decidedly down-to-earth one. The Arpanet was not, in itself, intended as some kind of secret weapon to put the Soviets in their place: it was simply a way to enable researchers to access computers remotely, because computers were still vast and expensive, and the scientists needed a way to share resources. (The notion that the network was designed so that it would survive a nuclear attack is an urban myth, though some of those involved sometimes used that argument to obtain funding.) The technical problem solved by the IMPs wasn’t very exciting, either. It was already possible to link computers by telephone lines, but it was glacially slow, and every computer in the network had to be connected, by a dedicated line, to every other computer, which meant you couldn’t connect more than a handful of machines without everything becoming monstrously complex and costly. The solution, called “packet switching” – which owed its existence to the work of a British physicist, Donald Davies – involved breaking data down into blocks that could be routed around any part of the network that happened to be free, before getting reassembled at the other end.

“I thought this was important, but I didn’t really think it was as challenging as what I thought of as the ‘real research’,” says Crocker, a genial Californian, now 65, who went on to play a key role in the expansion of the internet. “I was particularly fascinated, in those days, by artificial intelligence, and by trying to understand how people think. I thought that was a much more substantial and respectable research topic than merely connecting up a few machines. That was certainly useful, but it wasn’t art.”

Still, Kleinrock recalls a tangible sense of excitement that night as Kline sat down at the SDS Sigma 7 computer, connected to the IMP, and at the same time made telephone contact with his opposite number at Stanford. As his colleagues watched, he typed the letter L, to begin the word LOGIN.

“Have you got the L?” he asked, down the phone line. “Got the L,” the voice at Stanford responded.

Kline typed an O. “Have you got the O?”

“Got the O,” Stanford replied.

Kline typed a G, at which point the system crashed, and the connection was lost. The G didn’t make it through, which meant that, quite by accident, the first message ever transmitted across the nascent internet turned out, after all, to be fittingly biblical:


Frenzied visions of a global conscious brain

One of the most intriguing things about the growth of the internet is this: to a select group of technological thinkers, the surprise wasn’t how quickly it spread across the world, remaking business, culture and politics – but that it took so long to get off the ground. Even when computers were mainly run on punch-cards and paper tape, there were whispers that it was inevitable that they would one day work collectively, in a network, rather than individually. (Tracing the origins of online culture even further back is some people’s idea of an entertaining game: there are those who will tell you that the Talmud, the book of Jewish law, contains a form of hypertext, the linking-and-clicking structure at the heart of the web.) In 1945, the American presidential science adviser, Vannevar Bush, was already imagining the “memex”, a device in which “an individual stores all his books, records, and communications”, which would be linked to each other by “a mesh of associative trails”, like weblinks. Others had frenzied visions of the world’s machines turning into a kind of conscious brain. And in 1946, an astonishingly complete vision of the future appeared in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction. In a story entitled A Logic Named Joe, the author Murray Leinster envisioned a world in which every home was equipped with a tabletop box that he called a “logic”:

“You got a logic in your house. It looks like a vision receiver used to, only it’s got keys instead of dials and you punch the keys for what you wanna get . . . you punch ‘Sally Hancock’s Phone’ an’ the screen blinks an’ sputters an’ you’re hooked up with the logic in her house an’ if somebody answers you got a vision-phone connection. But besides that, if you punch for the weather forecast [or] who was mistress of the White House durin’ Garfield’s administration . . . that comes on the screen too. The relays in the tank do it. The tank is a big buildin’ full of all the facts in creation . . . hooked in with all the other tanks all over the country . . . The only thing it won’t do is tell you exactly what your wife meant when she said, ‘Oh, you think so, do you?’ in that peculiar kinda voice “

Despite all these predictions, though, the arrival of the internet in the shape we know it today was never a matter of inevitability. It was a crucial idiosyncracy of the Arpanet that its funding came from the American defence establishment – but that the millions ended up on university campuses, with researchers who embraced an anti-establishment ethic, and who in many cases were committedly leftwing; one computer scientist took great pleasure in wearing an anti-Vietnam badge to a briefing at the Pentagon. Instead of smothering their research in the utmost secrecy – as you might expect of a cold war project aimed at winning a technological battle against Moscow – they made public every step of their thinking, in documents known as Requests For Comments.

Deliberately or not, they helped encourage a vibrant culture of hobbyists on the fringes of academia – students and rank amateurs who built their own electronic bulletin-board systems and eventually FidoNet, a network to connect them to each other. An argument can be made that these unofficial tinkerings did as much to create the public internet as did the Arpanet. Well into the 90s, by the time the Arpanet had been replaced by NSFNet, a larger government-funded network, it was still the official position that only academic researchers, and those affiliated to them, were supposed to use the network. It was the hobbyists, making unofficial connections into the main system, who first opened the internet up to allcomers.

What made all of this possible, on a technical level, was simultaneously the dullest-sounding and most crucial development since Kleinrock’s first message. This was the software known as TCP/IP, which made it possible for networks to connect to other networks, creating a “network of networks”, capable of expanding virtually infinitely – which is another way of defining what the internet is. It’s for this reason that the inventors of TCP/IP, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, are contenders for the title of fathers of the internet, although Kleinrock, understandably, disagrees. “Let me use an analogy,” he says. “You would certainly not credit the birth of aviation to the invention of the jet engine. The Wright Brothers launched aviation. Jet engines greatly improved things.”

The spread of the internet across the Atlantic, through academia and eventually to the public, is a tale too intricate to recount here, though it bears mentioning that British Telecom and the British government didn’t really want the internet at all: along with other European governments, they were in favour of a different networking technology, Open Systems Interconnect. Nevertheless, by July 1992, an Essex-born businessman named Cliff Stanford had opened Demon Internet, Britain’s first commercial internet service provider. Officially, the public still wasn’t meant to be connecting to the internet. “But it was never a real problem,” Stanford says today. “The people trying to enforce that weren’t working very hard to make it happen, and the people working to do the opposite were working much harder.” The French consulate in London was an early customer, paying Demon £10 a month instead of thousands of pounds to lease a private line to Paris from BT.

After a year or so, Demon had between 2,000 and 3,000 users, but they weren’t always clear why they had signed up: it was as if they had sensed the direction of the future, in some inchoate fashion, but hadn’t thought things through any further than that. “The question we always got was: ‘OK, I’m connected – what do I do now?'” Stanford recalls. “It was one of the most common questions on our support line. We would answer with ‘Well, what do you want to do? Do you want to send an email?’ ‘Well, I don’t know anyone with an email address.’ People got connected, but they didn’t know what was meant to happen next.”

Fortunately, a couple of years previously, a British scientist based at Cern, the physics laboratory outside Geneva, had begun to answer that question, and by 1993 his answer was beginning to be known to the general public. What happened next was the web.

The birth of the web

I sent my first email in 1994, not long after arriving at university, from a small, under-ventilated computer room that smelt strongly of sweat. Email had been in existence for decades by then – the @ symbol was introduced in 1971, and the first message, according to the programmer who sent it, Ray Tomlinson, was “something like QWERTYUIOP”. (The test messages, Tomlinson has said, “were entirely forgettable, and I have, therefore, forgotten them”.) But according to an unscientific poll of friends, family and colleagues, 1994 seems fairly typical: I was neither an early adopter nor a late one. A couple of years later I got my first mobile phone, which came with two batteries: a very large one, for normal use, and an extremely large one, for those occasions on which you might actually want a few hours of power. By the time I arrived at the Guardian, email was in use, but only as an add-on to the internal messaging system, operated via chunky beige terminals with green-on-black screens. It took for ever to find the @ symbol on the keyboard, and I don’t remember anything like an inbox, a sent-mail folder, or attachments. I am 34 years old, but sometimes I feel like Methuselah.

I have no recollection of when I first used the world wide web, though it was almost certainly when people still called it the world wide web, or even W3, perhaps in the same breath as the phrase “information superhighway”, made popular by Al Gore. (Or “infobahn”: did any of us really, ever, call the internet the “infobahn”?) For most of us, though, the web is in effect synonymous with the internet, even if we grasp that in technical terms that’s inaccurate: the web is simply a system that sits on top of the internet, making it greatly easier to navigate the information there, and to use it as a medium of sharing and communication. But the distinction rarely seems relevant in everyday life now, which is why its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, has his own legitimate claim to be the progenitor of the internet as we know it. The first ever website was his own, at CERN:

The idea that a network of computers might enable a specific new way of thinking about information, instead of just allowing people to access the data on each other’s terminals, had been around for as long as the idea of the network itself: it’s there in Vannevar Bush’s memex, and Murray Leinster’s logics. But the grandest expression of it was Project Xanadu, launched in 1960 by the American philosopher Ted Nelson, who imagined – and started to build – a vast repository for every piece of writing in existence, with everything connected to everything else according to a principle he called “transclusion”. It was also, presciently, intended as a method for handling many of the problems that would come to plague the media in the age of the internet, automatically channelling small royalties back to the authors of anything that was linked. Xanadu was a mind-spinning vision – and at least according to an unflattering portrayal by Wired magazine in 1995, over which Nelson threatened to sue, led those attempting to create it into a rabbit-hole of confusion, backbiting and “heart-slashing despair”. Nelson continues to develop Xanadu today, arguing that it is a vastly superior alternative to the web. “WE FIGHT ON,” the Xanadu website declares, sounding rather beleaguered, not least since the declaration is made on a website.

Web browsers crossed the border into mainstream use far more rapidly than had been the case with the internet itself: Mosaic launched in 1993 and Netscape followed soon after, though it was an embarrassingly long time before Microsoft realised the commercial necessity of getting involved at all. Amazon and eBay were online by 1995. And in 1998 came Google, offering a powerful new way to search the proliferating mass of information on the web. Until not too long before Google, it had been common for search or directory websites to boast about how much of the web’s information they had indexed – the relic of a brief period, hilarious in hindsight, when a user might genuinely have hoped to check all the webpages that mentioned a given subject. Google, and others, saw that the key to the web’s future would be helping users exclude almost everything on any given topic, restricting search results to the most relevant pages.

Without most of us quite noticing when it happened, the web went from being a strange new curiosity to a background condition of everyday life: I have no memory of there being an intermediate stage, when, say, half the information I needed on a particular topic could be found online, while the other half still required visits to libraries. “I remember the first time I saw a web address on the side of a truck, and I thought, huh, OK, something’s happening here,” says Spike Ilacqua, who years beforehand had helped found The World, the first commercial internet service provider in the US. Finally, he stopped telling acquaintances that he worked in “computers”, and started to say that he worked on “the internet”, and nobody thought that was strange.

It is absurd – though also unavoidable here – to compact the whole of what happened from then onwards into a few sentences: the dotcom boom, the historically unprecedented dotcom bust, the growing “digital divide”, and then the hugely significant flourishing, over the last seven years, of what became known as Web 2.0. It is only this latter period that has revealed the true capacity of the web for “generativity”, for the publishing of blogs by anyone who could type, for podcasting and video-sharing, for the undermining of totalitarian regimes, for the use of sites such as Twitter and Facebook to create (and ruin) friendships, spread fashions and rumours, or organise political resistance. But you almost certainly know all this: it’s part of what these days, in many parts of the world, we call “just being alive”.

The most confounding thing of all is that in a few years’ time, all this stupendous change will probably seem like not very much change at all. As Crocker points out, when you’re dealing with exponential growth, the distance from A to B looks huge until you get to point C, whereupon the distance between A and B looks like almost nothing; when you get to point D, the distance between B and C looks similarly tiny. One day, presumably, everything that has happened in the last 40 years will look like early throat-clearings — mere preparations for whatever the internet is destined to become. We will be the equivalents of the late-60s computer engineers, in their horn-rimmed glasses, brown suits, and brown ties, strange, period-costume characters populating some dimly remembered past.

Creation Myth by Malcolm Gladwell

Xerox PARC, Apple, and the truth about innovation.


In late 1979, a twenty-four-year-old entrepreneur paid a visit to a research center in Silicon Valley called Xerox PARC. He was the co-founder of a small computer startup down the road, in Cupertino. His name was Steve Jobs.

Xerox PARC was the innovation arm of the Xerox Corporation. It was, and remains, on Coyote Hill Road, in Palo Alto, nestled in the foothills on the edge of town, in a long, low concrete building, with enormous terraces looking out over the jewels of Silicon Valley. To the northwest was Stanford University’s Hoover Tower. To the north was Hewlett-Packard’s sprawling campus. All around were scores of the other chip designers, software firms, venture capitalists, and hardware-makers. A visitor to PARC, taking in that view, could easily imagine that it was the computer world’s castle, lording over the valley below—and, at the time, this wasn’t far from the truth. In 1970, Xerox had assembled the world’s greatest computer engineers and programmers, and for the next ten years they had an unparalleled run of innovation and invention. If you were obsessed with the future in the seventies, you were obsessed with Xerox PARC—which was why the young Steve Jobs had driven to Coyote Hill Road.

Apple was already one of the hottest tech firms in the country. Everyone in the Valley wanted a piece of it. So Jobs proposed a deal: he would allow Xerox to buy a hundred thousand shares of his company for a million dollars—its highly anticipated I.P.O. was just a year away—if PARC would “open its kimono.” A lot of haggling ensued. Jobs was the fox, after all, and PARC was the henhouse. What would he be allowed to see? What wouldn’t he be allowed to see? Some at PARC thought that the whole idea was lunacy, but, in the end, Xerox went ahead with it. One PARC scientist recalls Jobs as “rambunctious”—a fresh-cheeked, caffeinated version of today’s austere digital emperor. He was given a couple of tours, and he ended up standing in front of a Xerox Alto, PARC’s prized personal computer.

An engineer named Larry Tesler conducted the demonstration. He moved the cursor across the screen with the aid of a “mouse.” Directing a conventional computer, in those days, meant typing in a command on the keyboard. Tesler just clicked on one of the icons on the screen. He opened and closed “windows,” deftly moving from one task to another. He wrote on an elegant word-processing program, and exchanged e-mails with other people at PARC, on the world’s first Ethernet network. Jobs had come with one of his software engineers, Bill Atkinson, and Atkinson moved in as close as he could, his nose almost touching the screen. “Jobs was pacing around the room, acting up the whole time,” Tesler recalled. “He was very excited. Then, when he began seeing the things I could do onscreen, he watched for about a minute and started jumping around the room, shouting, ‘Why aren’t you doing anything with this? This is the greatest thing. This is revolutionary!’”

Xerox began selling a successor to the Alto in 1981. It was slow and underpowered—and Xerox ultimately withdrew from personal computers altogether. Jobs, meanwhile, raced back to Apple, and demanded that the team working on the company’s next generation of personal computers change course. He wanted menus on the screen. He wanted windows. He wanted a mouse. The result was the Macintosh, perhaps the most famous product in the history of Silicon Valley.

“If Xerox had known what it had and had taken advantage of its real opportunities,” Jobs said, years later, “it could have been as big as I.B.M. plus Microsoft plus Xerox combined—and the largest high-technology company in the world.”

This is the legend of Xerox PARC. Jobs is the Biblical Jacob and Xerox is Esau, squandering his birthright for a pittance. In the past thirty years, the legend has been vindicated by history. Xerox, once the darling of the American high-technology community, slipped from its former dominance. Apple is now ascendant, and the demonstration in that room in Palo Alto has come to symbolize the vision and ruthlessness that separate true innovators from also-rans. As with all legends, however, the truth is a bit more complicated.


After Jobs returned from PARC, he met with a man named Dean Hovey, who was one of the founders of the industrial-design firm that would become known as IDEO. “Jobs went to Xerox PARC on a Wednesday or a Thursday, and I saw him on the Friday afternoon,” Hovey recalled. “I had a series of ideas that I wanted to bounce off him, and I barely got two words out of my mouth when he said, ‘No, no, no, you’ve got to do a mouse.’ I was, like, ‘What’s a mouse?’ I didn’t have a clue. So he explains it, and he says, ‘You know, [the Xerox mouse] is a mouse that cost three hundred dollars to build and it breaks within two weeks. Here’s your design spec: Our mouse needs to be manufacturable for less than fifteen bucks. It needs to not fail for a couple of years, and I want to be able to use it on Formica and my bluejeans.’ From that meeting, I went to Walgreens, which is still there, at the corner of Grant and El Camino in Mountain View, and I wandered around and bought all the underarm deodorants that I could find, because they had that ball in them. I bought a butter dish. That was the beginnings of the mouse.”

I spoke with Hovey in a ramshackle building in downtown Palo Alto, where his firm had started out. He had asked the current tenant if he could borrow his old office for the morning, just for the fun of telling the story of the Apple mouse in the place where it was invented. The room was the size of someone’s bedroom. It looked as if it had last been painted in the Coolidge Administration. Hovey, who is lean and healthy in a Northern California yoga-and-yogurt sort of way, sat uncomfortably at a rickety desk in a corner of the room. “Our first machine shop was literally out on the roof,” he said, pointing out the window to a little narrow strip of rooftop, covered in green outdoor carpeting. “We didn’t tell the planning commission. We went and got that clear corrugated stuff and put it across the top for a roof. We got out through the window.”

He had brought a big plastic bag full of the artifacts of that moment: diagrams scribbled on lined paper, dozens of differently sized plastic mouse shells, a spool of guitar wire, a tiny set of wheels from a toy train set, and the metal lid from a jar of Ralph’s preserves. He turned the lid over. It was filled with a waxlike substance, the middle of which had a round indentation, in the shape of a small ball. “It’s epoxy casting resin,” he said. “You pour it, and then I put Vaseline on a smooth steel ball, and set it in the resin, and it hardens around it.” He tucked the steel ball underneath the lid and rolled it around the tabletop. “It’s a kind of mouse.”

The hard part was that the roller ball needed to be connected to the housing of the mouse, so that it didn’t fall out, and so that it could transmit information about its movements to the cursor on the screen. But if the friction created by those connections was greater than the friction between the tabletop and the roller ball, the mouse would skip. And the more the mouse was used the more dust it would pick up off the tabletop, and the more it would skip. The Xerox PARC mouse was an elaborate affair, with an array of ball bearings supporting the roller ball. But there was too much friction on the top of the ball, and it couldn’t deal with dust and grime.

At first, Hovey set to work with various arrangements of ball bearings, but nothing quite worked. “This was the ‘aha’ moment,” Hovey said, placing his fingers loosely around the sides of the ball, so that they barely touched its surface. “So the ball’s sitting here. And it rolls. I attribute that not to the table but to the oldness of the building. The floor’s not level. So I started playing with it, and that’s when I realized: I want it to roll. I don’t want it to be supported by all kinds of ball bearings. I want to just barely touch it.”

The trick was to connect the ball to the rest of the mouse at the two points where there was the least friction—right where his fingertips had been, dead center on either side of the ball. “If it’s right at midpoint, there’s no force causing it to rotate. So it rolls.”

Hovey estimated their consulting fee at thirty-five dollars an hour; the whole project cost perhaps a hundred thousand dollars. “I originally pitched Apple on doing this mostly for royalties, as opposed to a consulting job,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I’m thinking fifty cents apiece,’ because I was thinking that they’d sell fifty thousand, maybe a hundred thousand of them.” He burst out laughing, because of how far off his estimates ended up being. ‘s pretty savvy. He said no. Maybe if I’d asked for a nickel, I would have been fine.”


Here is the first complicating fact about the Jobs visit. In the legend of Xerox PARC, Jobs stole the personal computer from Xerox. But the striking thing about Jobs’s instructions to Hovey is that he didn’t want to reproduce what he saw at PARC. “You know, there were disputes around the number of buttons—three buttons, two buttons, one-button mouse,” Hovey went on. “The mouse at Xerox had three buttons. But we came around to the fact that learning to mouse is a feat in and of itself, and to make it as simple as possible, with just one button, was pretty important.”

So was what Jobs took from Xerox the idea of the mouse? Not quite, because Xerox never owned the idea of the mouse. The PARC researchers got it from the computer scientist Douglas Engelbart, at Stanford Research Institute, fifteen minutes away on the other side of the university campus. Engelbart dreamed up the idea of moving the cursor around the screen with a stand-alone mechanical “animal” back in the mid- nineteen-sixties. His mouse was a bulky, rectangular affair, with what looked like steel roller-skate wheels. If you lined up Engelbart’s mouse, Xerox’s mouse, and Apple’s mouse, you would not see the serial reproduction of an object. You would see the evolution of a concept.

The same is true of the graphical user interface that so captured Jobs’s imagination. Xerox PARC’s innovation had been to replace the traditional computer command line with onscreen icons. But when you clicked on an icon you got a pop-up menu: this was the intermediary between the user’s intention and the computer’s response. Jobs’s software team took the graphical interface a giant step further. It emphasized “direct manipulation.” If you wanted to make a window bigger, you just pulled on its corner and made it bigger; if you wanted to move a window across the screen, you just grabbed it and moved it. The Apple designers also invented the menu bar, the pull-down menu, and the trash can—all features that radically simplified the original Xerox PARC idea.

The difference between direct and indirect manipulation—between three buttons and one button, three hundred dollars and fifteen dollars, and a roller ball supported by ball bearings and a free-rolling ball—is not trivial. It is the difference between something intended for experts, which is what Xerox PARC had in mind, and something that’s appropriate for a mass audience, which is what Apple had in mind. PARC was building a personal computer. Apple wanted to build apopular computer.

In a recent study, “The Culture of Military Innovation,” the military scholar Dima Adamsky makes a similar argument about the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs. R.M.A. refers to the way armies have transformed themselves with the tools of the digital age—such as precision-guided missiles, surveillance drones, and real-time command, control, and communications technologies—and Adamsky begins with the simple observation that it is impossible to determine who invented R.M.A. The first people to imagine how digital technology would transform warfare were a cadre of senior military intellectuals in the Soviet Union, during the nineteen-seventies. The first country to come up with these high-tech systems was the United States. And the first country to use them was Israel, in its 1982 clash with the Syrian Air Force in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, a battle commonly referred to as “the Bekaa Valley turkey shoot.” Israel coördinated all the major innovations of R.M.A. in a manner so devastating that it destroyed nineteen surface-to-air batteries and eighty-seven Syrian aircraft while losing only a handful of its own planes.

That’s three revolutions, not one, and Adamsky’s point is that each of these strands is necessarily distinct, drawing on separate skills and circumstances. The Soviets had a strong, centralized military bureaucracy, with a long tradition of theoretical analysis. It made sense that they were the first to understand the military implications of new information systems. But they didn’t do anything with it, because centralized military bureaucracies with strong intellectual traditions aren’t very good at connecting word and deed.

The United States, by contrast, has a decentralized, bottom-up entrepreneurial culture, which has historically had a strong orientation toward technological solutions. The military’s close ties to the country’ high-tech community made it unsurprising that the U.S. would be the first to invent precision-guidance and next-generation command-and-control communications. But those assets also meant that Soviet-style systemic analysis wasn’t going to be a priority. As for the Israelis, their military culture grew out of a background of resource constraint and constant threat. In response, they became brilliantly improvisational and creative. But, as Adamsky points out, a military built around urgent, short-term “fire extinguishing” is not going to be distinguished by reflective theory. No one stole the revolution. Each party viewed the problem from a different perspective, and carved off a different piece of the puzzle.

In the history of the mouse, Engelbart was the Soviet Union. He was the visionary, who saw the mouse before anyone else did. But visionaries are limited by their visions. “Engelbart’s self-defined mission was not to produce a product, or even a prototype; it was an open-ended search for knowledge,” Matthew Hiltzik writes, in “Dealers of Lightning” (1999), his wonderful history of Xerox PARC. “Consequently, no project in his lab ever seemed to come to an end.” Xerox PARC was the United States: it was a place where things got made. “Xerox created this perfect environment,” recalled Bob Metcalfe, who worked there through much of the nineteen-seventies, before leaving to found the networking company 3Com. “There wasn’t any hierarchy. We built out our own tools. When we needed to publish papers, we built a printer. When we needed to edit the papers, we built a computer. When we needed to connect computers, we figured out how to connect them. We had big budgets. Unlike many of our brethren, we didn’t have to teach. We could just research. It was heaven.”

But heaven is not a good place to commercialize a product. “We built a computer and it was a beautiful thing,” Metcalfe went on. “We developed our computer language, our own display, our own language. It was a gold-plated product. But it cost sixteen thousand dollars, and it needed to cost three thousand dollars.” For an actual product, you need threat and constraint—and the improvisation and creativity necessary to turn a gold-plated three-hundred-dollar mouse into something that works on Formica and costs fifteen dollars. Apple was Israel.

Xerox couldn’t have been I.B.M. and Microsoft combined, in other words. “You can be one of the most successful makers of enterprise technology products the world has ever known, but that doesn’t mean your instincts will carry over to the consumer market,” the tech writer Harry McCracken recently wrote. “They’re really different, and few companies have ever been successful in both.” He was talking about the decision by the networking giant Cisco System, this spring, to shut down its Flip camera business, at a cost of many hundreds of millions of dollars. But he could just as easily have been talking about the Xerox of forty years ago, which was one of the most successful makers of enterprise technology the world has ever known. The fair question is whether Xerox, through its research arm in Palo Alto, found a better way to be Xerox—and the answer is that it did, although that story doesn’t get told nearly as often.


One of the people at Xerox PARC when Steve Jobs visited was an optical engineer named Gary Starkweather. He is a solid and irrepressibly cheerful man, with large, practical hands and the engineer’s gift of pretending that what is impossibly difficult is actually pretty easy, once you shave off a bit here, and remember some of your high-school calculus, and realize that the thing that you thought should go in left to right should actually go in right to left. Once, before the palatial Coyote Hill Road building was constructed, a group that Starkweather had to be connected to was moved to another building, across the Foothill Expressway, half a mile away. There was no way to run a cable under the highway. So Starkweather fired a laser through the air between the two buildings, an improvised communications system that meant that, if you were driving down the Foothill Expressway on a foggy night and happened to look up, you might see a mysterious red beam streaking across the sky. When a motorist drove into the median ditch, “we had to turn it down,” Starkweather recalled, with a mischievous smile.

Lasers were Starkweather’s specialty. He started at Xerox’s East Coast research facility in Webster, New York, outside Rochester. Xerox built machines that scanned a printed page of type using a photographic lens, and then printed a duplicate. Starkweather’s idea was to skip the first step—to run a document from a computer directly into a photocopier, by means of a laser, and turn the Xerox machine into a printer. It was a radical idea. The printer, since Gutenberg, had been limited to the function of re-creation: if you wanted to print a specific image or letter, you had to have a physical character or mark corresponding to that image or letter. What Starkweather wanted to do was take the array of bits and bytes, ones and zeros that constitute digital images, and transfer them straight into the guts of a copier. That meant, at least in theory, that he could print anything.

“One morning, I woke up and I thought, Why don’t we just print something out directly?” Starkweather said. “But when I flew that past my boss he thought it was the most brain-dead idea he had ever heard. He basically told me to find something else to do. The feeling was that lasers were too expensive. They didn’t work that well. Nobody wants to do this, computers aren’t powerful enough. And I guess, in my naïveté, I kept thinking, He’s just not right—there’s something about this I really like. It got to be a frustrating situation. He and I came to loggerheads over the thing, about late 1969, early 1970. I was running my experiments in the back room behind a black curtain. I played with them when I could. He threatened to lay off my people if I didn’t stop. I was having to make a decision: do I abandon this, or do I try and go up the ladder with it?”

Then Starkweather heard that Xerox was opening a research center in Palo Alto, three thousand miles away from its New York headquarters. He went to a senior vice-president of Xerox, threatening to leave for I.B.M. if he didn’t get a transfer. In January of 1971, his wish was granted, and, within ten months, he had a prototype up and running.

Starkweather is retired now, and lives in a gated community just north of Orlando, Florida. When we spoke, he was sitting at a picnic table, inside a screened-in porch in his back yard. Behind him, golfers whirred by in carts. He was wearing white chinos and a shiny black short-sleeved shirt, decorated with fluorescent images of vintage hot rods. He had brought out two large plastic bins filled with the artifacts of his research, and he spread the contents on the table: a metal octagonal disk, sketches on lab paper, a black plastic laser housing that served as the innards for one of his printers.

“There was still a tremendous amount of opposition from the Webster group, who saw no future in computer printing,” he went on. “They said, ‘I.B.M. is doing that. Why do we need to do that?’ and so forth. Also, there were two or three competing projects, which I guess I have the luxury of calling ridiculous. One group had fifty people and another had twenty. I had two.” Starkweather picked up a picture of one of his in-house competitors, something called an “optical carriage printer.” It was the size of one of those modular Italian kitchen units that you see advertised in fancy design magazines. “It was an unbelievable device,” he said, with a rueful chuckle. “It had a ten-inch drum, which turned at five thousand r.p.m., like a super washing machine. It had characters printed on its surface. I think they only ever sold ten of them. The problem was that it was spinning so fast that the drum would blow out and the characters would fly off. And there was only this one lady in Troy, New York, who knew how to put the characters on so that they would stay.

“So we finally decided to have what I called a fly-off. There was a full page of text—where some of them were non-serif characters, Helvetica, stuff like that—and then a page of graph paper with grid lines, and pages with pictures and some other complex stuff—and everybody had to print all six pages. Well, once we decided on those six pages, I knew I’d won, because I knew there wasn’t anything I couldn’t print. Are you kidding? If you can translate it into bits, I can print it. Some of these other machines had to go through hoops just to print a curve. A week after the fly-off, they folded those other projects. I was the only game in town.” The project turned into the Xerox 9700, the first high-speed, cut-paper laser printer in the world.


In one sense, the Starkweather story is of a piece with the Steve Jobs visit. It is an example of the imaginative poverty of Xerox management. Starkweather had to hide his laser behind a curtain. He had to fight for his transfer to PARC. He had to endure the indignity of the fly-off, and even then Xerox management remained skeptical. The founder of PARC, Jack Goldman, had to bring in a team from Rochester for a personal demonstration. After that, Starkweather and Goldman had an idea for getting the laser printer to market quickly: graft a laser onto a Xerox copier called the 7000. The 7000 was an older model, and Xerox had lots of 7000s sitting around that had just come off lease. Goldman even had a customer ready: the Lawrence Livermore laboratory was prepared to buy a whole slate of the machines. Xerox said no. Then Starkweather wanted to make what he called a photo-typesetter, which produced camera-ready copy right on your desk. Xerox said no. “I wanted to work on higher-performance scanners,” Starkweather continued. “In other words, what if we print something other than documents? For example, I made a high-resolution scanner and you could print on glass plates.” He rummaged in one of the boxes on the picnic table and came out with a sheet of glass, roughly six inches square, on which a photograph of a child’s face appeared. The same idea, he said, could have been used to make “masks” for the semiconductor industry—the densely patterned screens used to etch the designs on computer chips. “No one would ever follow through, because Xerox said, ‘Now you’re in Intel’s market, what are you doing that for?’ They just could not seem to see that they were in the information business. This”—he lifted up the plate with the little girl’s face on it— “is a copy. It’s just not a copy of an office document.” But he got nowhere. “Xerox had been infested by a bunch of spreadsheet experts who thought you could decide every product based on metrics. Unfortunately, creativity wasn’t on a metric.”

A few days after that afternoon in his back yard, however, Starkweather e-mailed an addendum to his discussion of his experiences at PARC. “Despite all the hassles and risks that happened in getting the laser printer going, in retrospect the journey was that much more exciting,” he wrote. “Often difficulties are just opportunities in disguise.” Perhaps he felt that he had painted too negative a picture of his time at Xerox, or suffered a pang of guilt about what it must have been like to be one of those Xerox executives on the other side of the table. The truth is that Starkweather was a difficult employee. It went hand in hand with what made him such an extraordinary innovator. When his boss told him to quit working on lasers, he continued in secret. He was disruptive and stubborn and independent-minded—and he had a thousand ideas, and sorting out the good ideas from the bad wasn’t always easy. Should Xerox have put out a special order of laser printers for Lawrence Livermore, based on the old 7000 copier? In “Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, the First Personal Computer” (1988)—a book dedicated to the idea that Xerox was run by the blind—Douglas Smith and Robert Alexander admit that the proposal was hopelessly impractical: “The scanty Livermore proposal could not justify the investment required to start a laser printing business…. How and where would Xerox manufacture the laser printers? Who would sell and service them? Who would buy them and why?” Starkweather, and his compatriots at Xerox PARC, weren’t the source of disciplined strategic insights. They were wild geysers of creative energy.

The psychologist Dean Simonton argues that this fecundity is often at the heart of what distinguishes the truly gifted. The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn’t necessarily that he had a better ratio of hits to misses. The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-fledged musical compositions. A genius is a genius, Simonton maintains, because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, random observations, and unexpected connections that he almost inevitably ends up with something great. “Quality,” Simonton writes, is “a probabilistic function of quantity.”

Simonton’s point is that there is nothing neat and efficient “The more successes there are,” he says, “the more failures there are as well” — meaning that the person who had far more ideas than the rest of us will have far more bad ideas than the rest of us, too. This is why managing the creative process is so difficult. The making of the classic Rolling Stones album “Exile on Main Street” was an ordeal, Keith Richards writes in his new memoir, because the band had too many ideas. It had to fight from under an avalanche of mediocrity: “Head in the Toilet Blues,” “Leather Jackets,” “Windmill,” “I Was Just a Country Boy,” “Bent Green Needles,” “Labour Pains,” and “Pommes de Terre”—the last of which Richards explains with the apologetic, “Well, we were in France at the time.”

At one point, Richards quotes a friend, Jim Dickinson, remembering the origins of the song “Brown Sugar”:

I watched Mick write the lyrics. . . . He wrote it down as fast as he could move his hand. I’d never seen anything like it. He had one of those yellow legal pads, and he’d write a verse a page, just write a verse and then turn the page, and when he had three pages filled, they started to cut it. It was amazing.

Richards goes on to marvel, “It’s unbelievable how prolific he was.” Then he writes, “Sometimes you’d wonder how to turn the fucking tap off. The odd times he would come out with so many lyrics, you’re crowding the airwaves, boy.” Richards clearly saw himself as the creative steward of the Rolling Stones (only in a rock-and-roll band, by the way, can someone like Keith Richards perceive himself as the responsible one), and he came to understand that one of the hardest and most crucial parts of his job was to “turn the fucking tap off,” to rein in Mick Jagger’s incredible creative energy.

The more Starkweather talked, the more apparent it became that his entire career had been a version of this problem. Someone was always trying to turn his tap off. But someone had to turn his tap off: the interests of the innovator aren’t perfectly aligned with the interests of the corporation. Starkweather saw ideas on their own merits. Xerox was a multinational corporation, with shareholders, a huge sales force, and a vast corporate customer base, and it needed to consider every new idea within the context of what it already had.

Xerox’s managers didn’t always make the right decisions when they said no to Starkweather. But he got to PARC, didn’t he? And Xerox, to its great credit, had a PARC—a place where, a continent away from the top managers, an engineer could sit and dream, and get every purchase order approved, and fire a laser across the Foothill Expressway if he was so inclined. Yes, he had to pit his laser printer against lesser ideas in the contest. But he won the contest. And, the instant he did, Xerox cancelled the competing projects and gave him the green light.

“I flew out there and gave a presentation to them on what I was looking at,” Starkweather said of his first visit to PARC. “They really liked it, because at the time they were building a personal computer, and they were beside themselves figuring out how they were going to get whatever was on the screen onto a sheet of paper. And when I showed them how I was going to put prints on a sheet of paper it was a marriage made in heaven.” The reason Xerox invented the laser printer, in other words, is that it invented the personal computer. Without the big idea, it would never have seen the value of the small idea. If you consider innovation to be efficient and ideas precious, that is a tragedy: you give the crown jewels away to Steve Jobs, and all you’re left with is a printer. But in the real, messy world of creativity, giving away the thing you don’t really understand for the thing that you do is an inevitable tradeoff.

“When you have a bunch of smart people with a broad enough charter, you will always get something good out of it,” Nathan Myhrvold, formerly a senior executive at Microsoft, argues. “It’s one of the best investments you could possibly make—but only if you chose to value it in terms of successes. If you chose to evaluate it in terms of how many times you failed, or times you could have succeeded and didn’t, then you are bound to be unhappy. Innovation is an unruly thing. There will be some ideas that don’t get caught in your cup. But that’s not what the game is about. The game is what you catch, not what you spill.”

In the nineteen-nineties, Myhrvold created a research laboratory at Microsoft modelled in part on what Xerox had done in Palo Alto in the nineteen-seventies, because he considered PARC a triumph, not a failure. “Xerox did research outside their business model, and when you do that you should not be surprised that you have a hard time dealing with it—any more than if some bright guy at Pfizer wrote a word processor. Good luck to Pfizer getting into the word-processing business. Meanwhile, the thing that they invented that was similar to their own business—a really big machine that spit paper —they made a lot of money on it.” And so they did. Gary Starkweather’s laser printer made billions for Xerox. It paid for every other single project at Xerox PARC, many times over.


In 1988, Starkweather got a call from the head of one of Xerox’s competitors, trying to lure him away. It was someone whom he had met years ago. “The decision was painful,” he said. “I was a year from being a twenty-five-year veteran of the company. I mean, I’d done enough for Xerox that unless I burned the building down they would never fire me. But that wasn’t the issue. It’s about having ideas that are constantly squashed. So I said, ‘Enough of this,’ and I left.”

He had a good many years at his new company, he said. It was an extraordinarily creative place. He was part of decision-making at the highest level. “Every employee from technician to manager was hot for the new, exciting stuff,” he went on. “So, as far as buzz and daily environment, it was far and away the most fun I’ve ever had.” But it wasn’t perfect. “I remember I called in the head marketing guy and I said, ‘I want you to give me all the information you can come up with on when people buy one of our products—what software do they buy, what business are they in—so I can see the model of how people are using the machines.’ He looked at me and said, ‘I have no idea about that.’ ” Where was the rigor? Then Starkweather had a scheme for hooking up a high-resolution display to one of his new company’s computers. “I got it running and brought it into management and said, ‘Why don’t we show this at the tech expo in San Francisco? You’ll be able to rule the world.’ They said, ‘I don’t know. We don’t have room for it.’ It was that sort of thing. It was like me saying I’ve discovered a gold mine and you saying we can’t afford a shovel.”

He shrugged a little wearily. It was ever thus. The innovator says go. The company says stop—and maybe the only lesson of the legend of Xerox PARC is that what happened there happens, in one way or another, everywhere. By the way, the man who hired Gary Starkweather away to the company that couldn’t afford a shovel? His name was Steve Jobs.


That was another thing. They hated having to translate their work into dumbed-down metaphors for the shiny shoe set – the meddlesome lawyers, media scribblers, and potential corporate sponsors who came through wanting to “understand” without doing the hard work of paying attention. Oh, god. This was just one more reason that Francis Benoit was glad he was working here at the La Honda Research Center and not out there in some corporate start-up, because despite all the roll-up-your-shirtsleeves myths and stereotypes, when you got right down to it, working for a start-up meant he’d spend 80 percent of his time doing complete bullshit – chasing VC money, writing technical documentation, hiring people – and all of it involved dumbing down your work. And the meetings! To participate in that game would be a waste of god-given talent, it would be a crime against his very own nature. Francis Benoit could just see himself cooped up in some office park, suffocating on his own unvented thoughts, poisoning himself, just to prove something to the shiny shoe set.

Then there was the time that photographer and his camera crew came out from New York to shoot an ad for a new line of casual clothing, Lo-Tech Workware. Some Italian conglomerate had built up sufficient internal consensus to approve its ad agency’s recommendation: put unassuming clothes on semifamous titans of the American computer industry, take pictures, and print the pictures alongside the slogan “High tech insiders wear Lo-Tech on the outside.” The company hired the renowned Italian fashion photographer Adriano Paschetta, flew him out to San Francisco, and gave him first-class treatment for several days to primp his artistic temperament, then put him in an air-conditioned van for the trip down to Silicon Valley.

The producer had received, by fax, very specific directions; they had found the turnoff for Old La Honda Road, passed over a little gangplank bridge, and ascended into an evergreen forest, where sword ferns straddled the one-lane road and neon velvet moss circled the tree trunks. But about 2 miles farther up the road, the asphalt became all cracked and broken so the wheels of their van started a drumbeat rump rump rump; then the canopy of forest overhanging the road began scraping the metal roof, and naturally they started thinking they’d missed a turnoff, this couldn’t be it, no way, something was wrong here, this couldn’t be the way to the world-renowned La Honda Research Center.

Right about when their ears popped from the altitude, they caught up with this fat guy on a frail 50-cc pedal-scooter, which was whining and bleeding a trail of oil-tainted blue smoke into the air. A plastic grocery bag dangled from the elbow of one arm; a diminutive Styrofoam helmet adorned his head.

There was no room to pass, and the fat guy wasn’t about to pull his scooter over and lose all his momentum, so they had no choice but to roll along behind him for the next mile and stare at the pale smile of flesh between his shorts and shirt.

When the scooter-borne fat guy pulled into the entrance of the research center, Paschetta wondered if maybe all this was a prank set up by the boys in New York. Coming from Manhattan, where power is expressed, above all, in the concrete and glass of huge buildings rocketing skyward, well, they just expected more than a converted high school. Two three-story, I-shaped buildings with sloped, Spanish tile roofs bordered a field of overgrown, trampled grass. The buildings were brick but resurfaced with a thin layer of terra cotta or adobe, which had provided a porous surface for ivy to climb on. The flower beds, which separated the lawn from the buildings, had black-berry bushes growing in them. Blackberries! Where the camera crew came from, the blackberry bush was considered an invasive weed, even in the heat of summer with berries popping up beside every thorn; yet here it was growing in the flower beds, trimmed into orderly 4-foot-high thickets. The fat guy, who without locking it had leaned his scooter up against a bike rack in the parking lot, waddled along a pathway for several steps, the landing of each foot initiating a jiggle that tremored up and across the surface of his body. He reached into his grocery bag, dug around with his fist, and came out with a double-stick fruit popsicle. The thought then occurred to Adriano Paschetta that the whole notion implied by this campaign was dangerous – it might be a terrible and grave mistake to turn our couture over to a gang of brainiacs who cared not a wit about appearances.

They unpacked the van; it took all of them to move the gear indoors – lights, makeup kit, several camera bags, backdrops, and a rack of clothes to be worn by the titan, a man named Hank Menzinger, the executive director of the center. The crew had never seen Hank Menzinger – didn’t even know what he looked like; and as far as they could tell, nobody involved with the advertising campaign had seen whether or not he looked good in the clothes. Nobody had even checked his size, for god’s sake – the clothes might not fit! All they knew about Hank Menzinger was that he could be found in Room 211, which was supposed to be upstairs in back, down a long hall.

So they hauled their gear up the stairs and down the hall and knocked on Room 211, and a man inside said “Yup,” and so they went in, banging their equipment on the door frame. There was something wrong with the room; this was certainlynot the office of any titan they’d ever seen. Where was the false fireplace, the leather-bound books, the regal oil painting of the officeholder? Where, above all else, was the secretary? Instead, there were two sleek leather couches opposite each other and on one of the couches sat a man. His head was tipped back to the ceiling. He had a shaved but stubbled head atop a lanky frame and looked pallid, like he might have just been let out of the hospital after a long sickness. He was wearing a green T-shirt with a line of tiny white lettering across the chest, too small to read at a distance. His eyes were also green, and Adriano Paschetta mustered all of his artistic sensibilities to find inspiration in the very greenness of those eyes. Of course, they assumed this man was Hank Menzinger and had no idea he was really Francis Benoit.

Francis Benoit had been waiting 10 minutes for Hank Menzinger to finish his conference call in the inner room; waiting was not one of Francis’ strengths, and he wasn’t going to let this crew of photographers or whatever they were keep him from giving Hank a piece of his mind. He took this crew in with his eyes and started stalling while his brain figured.

“You’re looking for Hank, huh? … Who are you guys, some photo crew, rack of clothes, huh … wait – this for an ad?”

Francis went to the rack of clothes and shuffled through the hangers, quickly delivering his pronouncement on each article. “Yes, yes, no, no, yeeesss, no … hey, wait, these shoes …” Francis turned to the producer. “These shoes are shiny.”

“That’s bad?” the producer asked.
“Yes, bad.” He pulled the loafers out and set them on the carpet. “You know what shiny shoes mean, don’t you?”

The producer’s eyes squinted and his lips pursed. No words came out.

“Shiny shoes have to be continually reshined. Why would I buy a pair of shoes that have to be continuously reshinedwhen I could buy a pair – for no more money, mind you – thatdon’t have to be reshined?”

The representative from the Italian conglomerate stepped forward to offer an explanation. “Well, we thought that the shine, the polish, conveyed a sort of crisp quality, sort of that high tech, dust-free sheen.”

Francis merely shook his head. “Crisp?” he said, drawing out the word. “Crisp? No, you see, this place is not about being crisp. Crisp is not a goal we aspire to. Using our time effectively is a goal we aspire to. Shining our shoes is not on the list.”

“Not on the list,” the representative repeated. He seemed to make some decision. “OK, no shoes. Thanks, thanks. Authenticity is important to us. Do you mind …” The representative’s attention seemed to be fixed on the block of tiny white lettering on Francis’ chest. The point size was so small the representative had to push his face within inches of Francis’ sternum in order to read: when are you going to learn that a t-shirt is not a fashion statement, nor a billboard for advertising, nor a forum for your political idealism and is just a swatch of dyed cotton that keeps me warm on cool days and cool on warm days?

The representative said, “Ohh, that’s good, that’s excellent. Now that’s authentic. Can we take a Polaroid? Tommy, get a Polaroid of this right here. You don’t mind, do you buddy?”

You don’t mind, do you buddy? Francis put his palm over the type on his chest. “Hank Menzinger moved his office downstairs last week,” he said. “Room 139. It’s in the opposing wing of the building … the other end of the main lobby. Big red-haired guy. Can’t miss him.”

The producer waved his crew into action, and they all picked up their gear and filed back out into the hall, clanging and clicking. When they were gone, Francis Benoit sat back down on the couch, bent over, and began to untie the laces of his canvas sneakers. He tossed them in the trash can at the end of the couch. Then he stood up, slipped his feet into the shiny shoes left behind by the crew, and marched into Hank Menzinger’s office.

In Room 139 was a big red-haired guy who looked like one of those plots of land allowed to return to its natural habitat – he was cavemanish, his beard climbing all the way to his eyes and descending right into his flannel shirt. But as the camera crew eventually found out, he was not Hank Menzinger, either.

“Who told you that I was?”
“Well, this guy in Room 211, he seemed very helpful at the time …” the producer’s voice trailed off.

When the producer described the characteristic bald head and T-shirt copy, the big red-haired guy began to nod appreciatively. The big red-haired guy was named Ronny Banks, and he was the closest thing Francis Benoit had to a best friend. Ronny Banks had a master’s degree in computer science or physics or electrical engineering like everybody else at La Honda, but it was well known that when push came to shove, Ronny Banks just didn’t have “it” – it being the one commodity valued around here: brainpower. The one reason Hank Menzinger had kept him on for three years was that Ronny kept Francis Benoit happy. Ronny’s sole purpose at La Honda was to play along with whatever pranks or riffs Francis was into at the time. So when the producer described Francis, Ronny knew exactly what was going on.

“Aww, that must have been Francis Benoit,” Ronny explained. “He hates visitors, they interrupt his thinking. He was just playing a little prank on you.”

“Can you just then, won’t you tell us where to find Hank Menzinger?” the producer asked.

“Oh, sure, sure. He’s in the administration building, across the quad that’s the grass patch. First door on the right after you go in. I’ll call ahead to make sure he’s there.”

The men went out. Ronny Banks picked up the phone and dialed an extension. “Tiny” Curtis Reese answered the phone. Ronny could hear him slurping

on a popsicle.

“What are you doing right now, Tiny?”

“Compiling …”

“Look it, you gotta go right now to the conference room in the south building. Take the tunnel – don’t go across the quad. Right now, you hear me?”

“Awright.” He hung up the phone. Tiny was a precise person, and if you told him to go somewhere right now, he assumed you meant this very second. He wouldn’t even pause to ask why he was supposed to go to the conference room, or why he was supposed to take the tunnel. Tiny Curtis Reese didn’t want to know, and he didn’t want to ask, because it would only distract him from pondering the lines of code he’d written that morning. He sat down at the conference table and leaned forward to put his elbows on the tabletop, and that was how the camera crew found him when they came through the door.

The fat guy!

Adriano Paschetta gasped. The producer stopped in his tracks. The representative from the Italian conglomerate shuffled through his rack of garments, hunting for the largest item he’d brought, a terry-cloth bathrobe embossed across the back with the phrase “sprockets & cogs,” it was here somewhere….

“Excuse us,” the producer said, stepping forward.

Tiny said, “I’ve been waiting.”
“We’re very sorry we’re late,” the producer said. “We’ve had a little trouble finding you. You are Hank Menzinger, right?”

“You’re not?”

The producer let out a barely audible sigh of relief.

Tiny said, “Hank Menzinger, Room 211.” Sometimes Tiny failed to use familiar components of speech, preferring an abbreviated English akin to the code he wrote. He would often repeat words rather than modify comments – to say a dish of food, for instance, was extremely hot, Tiny would simply say “hot hot hot.” He was particularly this way with strangers.

“Is that in this building?”
“In the other building?”

The producer charged out of the room. The crew followed him, swearing and cursing. Adriano Paschetta stayed behind for a moment. He watched Tiny push his chair forward and backward. He’d been waiting all day for proper inspiration; he was looking for some distinct quality to capture on film, a quality that spoke to what La Honda was about. Suddenly Adriano Paschetta felt a surge of empathic energy rush through him, and he understood, he got it. He absolutely had to capture this, this what? This incredible level ofconcentration. This focus. He went up to Tiny.

“Excuse me, but, did you know … did you know that you are still wearing your bicycle helmet?”

Tiny put his hand on his head. Sure enough, the guy was right – he’d left his trusty Styrofoam helmet on his head this whole time. “What do you know …” he said. Then his hand went back down, and he fell back into his trancelike thoughts.

He didn’t take it off!
Adriano Paschetta ran all the way to Room 211.

This was the favorite kind of prank that Francis Benoit liked to play, because it stored a message, it taught a lesson – a lesson that would have to be learned by anyone who wanted to understand the way these computer engineers looked upon the rest of society. The name of the prank was the infinite loop, a term borrowed from programming. An infinite loop is what causes computer programs to apparently stall or stop working. A program starts looking for a particular variable, the way the photo crew went looking for Hank Menzinger. It follows its instructions to go to a particular line of code, just as they went to Room 211. That line of code performs a function, such as steal their shoes, then orders the program to go to another line of code, such as Room 139. Still the program is looking for the variable, but at Room 139, it is told to try another room. Francis Benoit knew that sooner or later somebody would set the crew straight and send them back to Room 211, completing the loop. Were this a computer program, though, it wouldn’t get frustrated or exasperated. It would just follow the orders stored in Room 211 – leave some shoes and go to Room 139 again. It would continue to go around and around endlessly, infinitely. When a computer appears to stop responding to keystrokes, usually it is caught in one of these infinite loops, working just perfectly, following instructions one at a time – with no idea it’s caught in a loop! This last part was important to the lesson. People can be caught in their own infinite loops and have no idea they’re caught in a loop. Each step seems logical, while the illogic of it all evades them. As a necessary part of their work, the engineers at La Honda had trained themselves to spot infinite loops, wherever they might be.

When the engineers at La Honda looked at the way society worked, sometimes all they could see was infinite loops. Just open the newspaper. Politicians ensure that taxes are always high enough to campaign for reelection on the pledge to cut taxes. Meanwhile, the public complains that it wants its politicians to “discuss the real issues,” which the politicians would be perfectly willing to do as soon as the public would stop caring about the first lady’s haircut. The cure for this loop is the educational system, but that happens to be caught in its own loop. Our failed educational systems guarantee that students will graduate uneducated, thereby creating an even greater demand for more failed educational systems. Education could get out of its rut if the entertainment industry would just clean up its act, and the entertainment executives would happily clean up their act if the public would just stop clamoring for more flesh ‘n’ blood. But flesh ‘n’ blood was the great pacifier, and we needed it, particularly in hard times like these when taxes are so high. From the engineer’s point of view, up there in their little utopia, tucked in amidst 87 acres of Bishop pine and Douglas fir overlooking Silicon Valley – a vantage point that they considered, without question, to be outside the “system” – society had some time ago entered into an infinite loop and stopped responding.

If the Lo-Tech producer stopped any one of these scientists on the footpaths around the center and asked what he wasdoing with his time at La Honda, he would never get them to say what they really thought, what they really believed. The scientists’ goal was bigger than any of them ever cared to state outright, for fear of coming across as unrealistic. They all knew why they worked around the clock, week in and week out: they wanted to jolt society out of its infinite loop! Nothing less!

But not just anybody could jolt society out of its infinite loop. It took ironmen. “Big iron” was industry slang for the fast, powerful computers invented at La Honda and elsewhere.Ironmen – they loved that word. No other word quite fit. Hank had given them that word. Every May, Hank Menzinger had to go to the four-drawer, gun-metal file cabinet in the back of his office and comb through the La Honda personnel files to decide who was special enough to be one of them and who wasn’t up to the task. And those that he decided were worthy he reinvited for another year. Reinvited! What a choice of words! Nobody was ever fired from La Honda – not one person in 30 years – but plenty had failed to be reinvited. Because to be fired implied that you had been employed, which itself was to imply a commercial quality that just didn’t exist at La Honda. La Honda wasn’t like the commercial sector. There were no semiannual performance reviews, no 10-rung salary ladders to climb, no job titles to garner, no business cards to hand out to friends. There was no marketing department to pass off your bloated code as sublime; no fancy software boxes to put on your bookshelf and say, “I did that”; no sales figures to derive pride from. Oh, in a commercial company there were any number of ways to know where you stood in the grand competition. But at La Honda, there was only one: you were either reinvited, or you weren’t.

The process of reinvitation was torture. Throughout the year, new people had been brought on as needed, so by May the number of ironmen had usually bloated to 110, maybe 120, people. Hank usually cut that by a fifth – but sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the success of fund-raising and corporate sponsorships. But he never told any of them how many he would reinvite. Instead he would occasionally post a list on the cork bulletin board in the foyer of the north building, right below the bronze relief portrait of the grand matron who built the place. On this list he might have scribbled 10 names, all of them reinvited. Then, for a few days, nothing. The agony! Then another posting, 10 or 15 more names. Word of a posting spread through the buildings. The hopefuls rushed to the foyer.

When the number of names got to be around 80, there was always the possibility that Hank would just say, “That’s it – that’s the cutoff.” You just had to wait. The names slowed to a trickle; undoubtedly, some of the fellows and chairs were debating the merits of a particular student with Hank. And this was exactly why Francis Benoit had been waiting to see Hank Menzinger on the day in late May of 1995 when the photographer and his crew had popped into Hank’s anteroom, and Francis had managed to con them out of a pair of shiny Italian loafers.

Francis Benoit kicked back in an armchair across from Hank and, tipping over a jar of green pencils, put his feet up on Hank’s desk. Hank wore a short lambskin leather coat that was as shiny as a Crisco’d baking sheet; he had a broad back and a thick gut, a symbol that his ironmen interpreted as greatness of character rather than weakness for sweets. He had broad flat lips, long wiry hair that had once been red, and a grin that made other men in its presence feel less alive. Hank Menzinger had once been an engineer, a good one, and had worked at Fairchild Semiconductor in the ’60s, when that meant something. But at some point along the road, Hank realized that his greatest gift had not been the power of his brain but the power of his personality. And that was nothing to be ashamed of, particularly if he applied his energy to the same goal he’d been applying his mind – jolt society out of its infinite loop!

Francis was looking out the window. His best friend, Ronny Banks, still hadn’t been reinvited. He said, “Some key people still haven’t been reinvited. So, naturally, those of us who count on those key personnel are wondering what’s going through Hank’s head …”

When Hank spoke, his hands parted, like the wings of a bird. “If you’re asking whether I’m going to invite any more people back, Francis, then my answer is ‘Yes.’ But I have to be very selective this year, Francis. Especially selective. You know already … I don’t have to explain to you, that the defense industry isn’t as capable of sponsoring research as it used to be. I don’t have spare spots to dole out.”

Francis said, “You need people who you can count on to get results.”

“I’m glad you understand.”
“And Ronny Banks … what’s he done in the last year except inject red food coloring into the milk in the cafeteria?”


Then Francis added, “And everybody else you are reinviting meets this criteria.”

Hank stopped. “Well …”

“Do you have a list?”
“Tomorrow, Francis. The combination of people, the chemistry – it has to be right. You know that.”

Francis said, “But there must be some names on it today?”

“Well, of course.”

Francis waited him out. Eventually, Hank pulled a folder aside and brought up the list. He handed it to Francis, who read over the six names on it, going “yes, yes, yes” to each name as he considered the talent of the person. Then Francis got to a name, Caspar Andrews, and had to think about it for a second before he realized that Hank was talking about Andy Caspar. Caspar was a fairly new guy, he’d been brought on only six weeks before to test several software programs that had been written by others during the year. Testing wasn’t a way to demonstrate you had it, it wasn’t proof of one’s prowess.

“Well hell,” Francis said. He brought his feet down and leaned forward onto the desk. “This kid Caspar here, he’s just a tester! He hasn’t proven himself!”

“Francis …”

“But you said you had no spare spots to dole out, and here you’ve got a mere tester who’s been here only six weeks on your list! I think this spare spot right here ought to be put up for discussion.” Francis slapped the list down on Hank’s desk.

Hank Menzinger slid his chair back from the desk and turned to face his gun-metal file cabinet. He pulled out Caspar’s file. He knew this was going to happen. “A few years ago, Caspar used to work at Omega Logic.” Omega Logic was one of La Honda’s biggest sponsors, if not the biggest, and partly because of that the president of La Honda’s board of regents was Lloyd Acheson, CEO of Omega Logic. Every year Lloyd Acheson looked over the list of reinvitees, and he swelled with pride if someone from Omega was amidst the brethren. Every year Hank Menzinger tried to make sure somebodywho had worked at Omega was on the list at La Honda – even if they had only worked in Omega’s marketing department, as Caspar had done.
Two floors below, in his office in the basement of the building, Andy Caspar was staring at something that had been carved into the well of one of his desk drawers by a previous occupant. It said: What does it say about a man, that he spends his days at a gray desk in a windowless room?

Since he’d come to La Honda, he hadn’t been given a decent chance to prove himself. Caspar had been brought in to a small, six-person team that was redesigning part of a chipset for digital satellites. All of his attempts to give input were rebuffed.

“How the hell can you possibly appreciate the intricacies of our problem?” they said to him. “You’re just a tester.”

So Andy resolved himself, If I’m just gonna be a tester, then I’m gonna be the best goddamn tester this place has ever seen. He pored over their code for weaknesses. Every day the team thought they were done, Andy yanked them back to their desks with yet another wrinkle they had missed. Over the last six weeks, Andy had transformed from the peon the team looked down their noses at to the gremlin in the basement they feared.

Now, Andy got a call from Hank Menzinger, requesting him to come by. Andy had to ask for the room number, since he’d never been there. He walked upstairs and entered Menzinger’s office. Francis Benoit was also there. Menzinger pointed to a swivel armchair.

Menzinger’s office was so cool; it wasn’t pretentious at all. He didn’t have cheesy slogans on the walls. He had some bookcases, but not every book he’d ever read. He didn’t have a humidifier. There was no CD player piping out ambient music. His desk wasn’t anally organized.

Menzinger grinned. “Listen, Andrews, as you know, I’m in the process of making reinvitations to personnel.”

Benoit chipped in. “I want him to keep my friend Ronny Banks, but Hank here has been trying to convince me that we should keep you instead.”

Andy was caught off guard. “Look, I’m not a conventional engineer,” he started out. “I didn’t even study engineering in college, but maybe that makes me … different.” He was just talking to say something, but Francis Benoit leapt at it.

“Different? Now that’s an interesting theorem. How do you think it would make you different?”

“Well, I might approach a problem differently.”

Francis baited him. “Are you saying you are different because you approach things differently, or you approach things differently because you are different?”

Now Andy wished he hadn’t said anything. “Sometimes I think I see simpler solutions …” he offered.

“Perhaps Andrews would be a little more comfortable if you asked him some questions,” Menzinger offered.

Yes, do that, Andy thought. But wait – *Andrews? *Menzinger had said Andrews again. Menzinger thought his name was Caspar Andrews! Menzinger was his supposed advocate in this debate, the one small chance he had at being reinvited, and Menzinger didn’t even know his name!

“Uh, it’s Andy …”

Francis said, “You used to work at Omega, huh? Did you ever sell the Falcon chip?” Francis had designed the Falcon.

“I left before the Falcon. I was selling the Eagle, the 486.”

“Did you like it there?”

Should he tell the truth? Probably not. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Then why did you leave?”

“Dunno. They don’t really let marketing people become programmers. The usual career path is the other way around, programmers burn out after five years, move to marketing.”

Francis said, “Why do you think they burn out so fast?”

This was a delicate question, but Andy couldn’t avoid the truth, even if Omega was a big sponsor for La Honda. “In that environment, programmers have to make so many compromises … it’s hard to keep the desire, the will, when half your work gets thrown out every year.”

That brought a bit of a smile to Francis’ mouth. Andy wondered if maybe he’d said something right.

Hank interrupted them. “OK, Francis, we’ve got to come to some decision.”

Francis said, “How about this. I will come up with one simple question. And

if you get it right, I will give up my resistance and let Hank here have his way. If you get it wrong, then Ronny Banks is on my team another year. How about that?” Francis wasn’t trying to think of a hard question – he was trying to think of a question that would show Hank how Andy Caspar wasn’t sharp enough to be an ironman. Francis tried to think of the right question … he looked around the room. On the wall above Andy was an old school clock.

Andy waited in fear.

Francis’ eyes were closed. When he opened them, he said, “OK. You have 30 seconds to answer this one question.”

He showed no emotion. “What time is it when the big hand is on the four and the little hand is on the eleven?”

What time is it when the big hand is on the four and the little hand is on the eleven? That was it? That’s all? Well, hell, let’s see, big hand on four is twenty, little hand on eleven, that’s too easy, there must be some trick, what? Oh, shit – was the big hand the hour hand? It had been so long since Andy had looked at a clock that wasn’t digital. Is the big hand the long hand, or is the big hand the fat hand? When he was a kid back in school they used the phrases “big hand” and “little hand” all the time, but that was a long time ago, a real long time ago, and maybe he had the terms switched in his mind.

Then Andy realized that this kind of second-guessing was exactly what Francis wanted him to do. Something else was going on. Francis was playing some sort of joke on him. Why?This wasn’t a test at all – the question was too easy.

Hank could see the clock right behind Caspar’s head, saying 11:20 right then and there! Beautiful! And yet just looking at Caspar, you could tell he was in turmoil – his head slightly bowed, his eyes ascending partly into his eyelids, lost in thought. Hank knew he was going to reinvite Andy Caspar, whether or not he got this question right – you had to please the sponsors, they were the source of money, you couldn’t be impractical about this thing. But Hank couldn’t help but admire the way Francis was embarrassing the kid. Simpler solutions! Hah. A man in a panic, he could get anythingwrong. Brains could be as sharp as quartz or as dull as Jello, depending on the way a man handled pressure.

Andy said, “This isn’t a real test. What the hell’s going on?”

“Oh, I assure you,” Francis said. “If you answer the question correctly, you will be reinvited. Or are you stalling because you’re having trouble with such a simple question.”

Andy tried to think back. What had he done to be fucked with?

“Time’s up,” Francis said, looking at the clock on the wall to keep time. There was a glint of pleasure in Francis’ eyes. He said, “What makes you think you can be an ironman?”

“The time would be 20 minutes after 11,” Andy said. He stood up and walked to the door. As he went out, he heard Francis burst out in laughter.

The camera crew was crowded into the anteroom again, waiting for Hank a second time, and here a man came out of Hank’s office. What a relief – he was young and tall with thick hair and good skin. The producer was ecstatic; after the hospital patient, the mountain man, and the whale-boy, the producer couldn’t hide his excitement that Hank Menzinger turned out to be a good-looking guy. He stood up and thrust out his hand.

“Mister Menzinger … hi, hi, wow
I can’t tell you how much of a pleasure it is to meet you.” The producer watched a big smile come over Mister Menzinger’s face. He even had great teeth! Those boys in New York had done their homework after all!

Andy instinctively shook this man’s hand. He held on to it, shaking firmly and warmly, taking in their act, figuring out what was going on. Well, if Francis Benoit thought he was the only one with audacity around here, he would learn differently.

“So … where should we go?” Andy said. “My office … it’s too small of course. There’s a lab down one floor, a big room, plenty of outlets for your lights.”

“That’ll be fine,” the producer said. “We’ll just follow you down there.”

Andy led them into the hall and – taking bold strides he thought appropriate for the executive director of La Honda – down one flight of stairs to the Materials Engineering Lab on the second floor.

He punched in a code to the cyberlock over the door, waited for the bolt to click, and then held the door open for his entourage. Once inside, he pulled a shade down over the door’s porthole so nobody passing by would notice the camera flashes.

Finally having something to do, the crew broke into action. One man covered the lab’s windows with dark cloth, blocking out natural light. Another man erected a scaffold and draped a white screen from its front. A third cranked down the telescopic legs of a tripod, mounted a reflex camera on the top, and plugged in an air-bulb shutter release cord. Done with the windows, the first man began popping flashes and testing light exposure.

“Don’t forget to check batteries!” the producer called out. He took Andy by the arm and guided him to the rack of clothes. “We’ll feed you clothes to change into as we go,” he said. “But why don’t you start with whatever looks comfortable. Go ahead, just pick some things off the rack and try them on.”

Andy stood in front of the rack, browsing through its selection. The pickings weren’t horrible. He slipped into a knit shirt and a pair of knee-length corduroys. He pulled his white socks up. Then he looked at the shoe selection, all sorts of shoes on pegs at the base of the rack. He turned back to the producer, who was across the room.

“Hey! Hey, um … these shoes … Don’t you guys have any sneakers?”

__ Good good good __

Francis Benoit’s office was actually two offices linked together, with one serving as the anteroom. The anteroom was barren. It did not have chairs to sit down on and waste away the day. It did not have decorations to distract. It did not even have carpet to muffle sound. The anteroom was more of an airlock, a zone to remove all your insecurities and hang them up on the lone chrome coat tree before going into Francis’ office.

Francis Benoit was staring at the ceiling when Andy entered. He did not change from this position – did not look at Andy – as he said, “Oh, good … Caspar, great, you’re here. Take a seat, please.”

Andy sat down in a spare chair. The only thing hanging on the wall of Francis’ office was a large dry-erase board marked with diagrams. There was a coffeemaker on the corner of Francis’ desk, but no coffee mugs in sight. Maybe Francis drank straight from the urn. Tree branches shielded the windows from direct light, but Andy noticed that the ceiling had been rigged with special full-spectrum incandescent light equipment. Despite this seeming fixation on light, Francis Benoit was extremely pale.

Andy waited for Francis to say something. It was a while in coming. Andy knew that Francis Benoit was recruiting 30 engineers for a team to design a chip called the Jolt, the highest, god-almightiest hunk of heavy iron ever attempted at La Honda, and to be a part of it was a story to tell your grandchildren.

Francis cleared his throat. His tongue wet his lips. “I suppose it is your intention to volunteer for the Jolt project, like everyone else around here?”

“I was thinking of it.”

“As you probably know, there will be way more volunteers than the 30 spots on the team. But since you used to work at Omega, Hank has it in mind to put you on my team. He tried to convince me your knowledge might be helpful, but the truth is he’s just trying to kiss Lloyd Acheson’s ass.” Francis began to scratch his chin casually. Then Andy saw that there was an old scar on Francis’ chin, and he was scratching the scar.

“What do you think of that? Do you think that’s fair, leapfrogging the other ironmen?”

“You know, all I really want is to get out of testing. I just want to get on a project I can apply myself to.”

“That’s good, Caspar. Because if you do volunteer for the Jolt, let me tell you what the next year will be like -“

Andy jumped ahead. “You’re going to make me a tester for the Jolt.”

“Aha, you catch on fast. Yes, you would be a tester. Nothing but testing. There will be 29 men giving you orders and making you their tester of first choice.”

“Come on, you gotta give me a chance; this isn’t fair. I’m sorry I took your buddy Ronny Banks’s place, but once you get to know me … if you give me a chance -“

Francis let out a little chuckle, as if it were a cough. “Don’t try to figure out why I’m doing what I’m doing. You’ll only get it wrong.”

Andy took a deep breath. “We started off on the wrong foot. What can I do to set us straight?”

“Let me make you an offer,” Francis said, ignoring him. “I will give you another project to volunteer for. If you do, and you stick with it … then a year from now I will guarantee you a reinvitation for next year.”

That didn’t sound so bad. Andy didn’t know what he’d done to rub Francis the wrong way, but at least Francis was giving him the signal now, rather than a month from now, when it would be too late to switch projects. In a small way Andy appreciated Francis’ being up-front about it. And a guaranteed reinvitation? What could be better than that?

Andy said, “All right. I’m with you so far. What’s the project?”

Francis slid a piece of paper across his desk to Andy. It was a list of potential projects. Francis leaned forward and circled a line at the bottom of the page. “A computer that will sell for only $300.”

“Three hundred!”
“You think it can’t be done?”
“Well, a computer can be built for any price. It’s just a question of how much it can do. Three hundred bucks, that’s just a step up from a cellular phone.”


“I guess the point, I guess the object, would be to see how much you could do for that limit.”


It was hard for Andy to hide his disappointment. More than anything, engineers wanted the respect of their peers. The best way to earn that respect was to design products other engineers found useful, that solved their problems. A $300 computer might make some schoolkid happy, but it would be as much use to an engineer as an abacus.

A project always suggested something about the men who designed it. Computers had symbolic value. And so what does it say about a man, Andy Caspar thought…. What does it say about a man, that he designs a computer that is simple and cheap?

“Why this project? There’s plenty of others. If you just want me off the Jolt, why don’t you let me choose another?”

“I have my reasons. If you’re smart, you will probably discover them soon enough.”

“So that’s my choice, huh? Be the little man on a big computer, or be a big man on the little computer?”

“But with a guaranteed reinvitation. Obviously, the word can’t get out that I’m promising reinvitations a year in advance. This conversation we’ve just had, this deal I am offering you … it is just between us. If you tell anyone – if the word gets out – I will guarantee you that you will not be reinvited next year.”

What the hell. It was a project. Work on it for a year, prove himself, get reinvited … move up to something better next year.

Andy said, “Why? Why do you even want this project?”

Francis sighed. “Ten years I’ve been designing chips here,” he said. “But do computers really operate any faster for their users? The software programs have grown so huge that it takes all the new hardware power just to keep the status quo. I’m tired of it, Andy. I want to see something that breaks that mold.” He ran his hand down over his face, drawing down his skin. Then he looked at Andy. “What do you think of that?”

“That sounds like the sort of thing you tell the newspapers. What’s the real reason?”

Francis only coughed out a little laugh. Then he raised his eyebrows, suggesting he had said all he was going to say. You could try to talk Francis Benoit out of a decision, but nobody had ever defied him. Andy was stuck with the project.

Andy Caspar did not stay at the La Honda Research Center that afternoon. He had never left the center during daylight before, but there was some beer in his refrigerator at home. Beer would not remedy his disappointment, but beer might help him swallow it.

When Tiny Curtis Reese received an email from Andy Caspar inviting him to come to lunch “re: volunteering for the VWPC,” Tiny was wary.

He had recently received a photocopy of his last year’s evaluation, in which his team leader had reported that Tiny was “a bulldozer who pushed through any task set in front of him.” It was meant as praise, but nevertheless – bulldozer! Tiny was deeply hurt when he read the evaluation. He thought he’d done the right thing in accepting without complaint the tasks given him, working through the problems on his own without asking for help, and not bragging about his successes. But what was the lasting impression he’d left with his boss? That he was a bulldozer! What the hell did that suggest? An order-taker! Tiny’s team had designed several gallium-arsenide chips, which are prevalent in digital wireless telephones and, more importantly, very cutting edge. It was the kind of project that made other engineers go, “Wow!” But a bulldozer shoveled dirt, a bulldozer was low tech, a bulldozer needs someone else to be the driver.

His boss was a bit of a joker, and the phrase might have been used satirically, in reference to Tiny’s massive body weight – nevertheless, it had made its way into Tiny’s permanent file. When Francis Benoit read through the file, looking over the volunteers for the Jolt team, did he recognize that the phrase was used satirically? Francis Benoit didn’t like order-takers, he liked ironmen with balls. And so Tiny resolved to himself that he wouldn’t join a project unless the leader understood him for who he was.

Two other guys had also been invited to lunch, Salman Fard and Darrell Lincoln. Tiny went down the hall to see if either of them had any idea what this VWPC project was about. He found Salman sitting alone in his office.

Salman looked like an Arab version of John Lennon circa 1966 – bangs slightly curling down his forehead, half-moon eyebrows, slightly hooked nose, and a drooping mustache that cut off the corners of his mouth. His hair was so black and so glossy that it looked wet. His sneakers had little nubby black cleats; if a football game suddenly broke out, he would be the only one prepared.

Recently, Salman had been getting headaches from staring at a monitor. To remedy the problem, he taped a folded-down paper napkin over his left eye. Bands of tape ran across his forehead and down his cheek. Then, as a joke, he’d squirted a touch of bright red iodine onto the napkin.

“Christ, what happened to you?” Tiny asked, wincing.

“Aww, my girlfriend and I had an argument.”

“And she hit you in the eye!?”

“She’s a little passionate.”

“Jeez. What were you fighting about?”

Salman said, “I accused her of not being as passionate as her little sister.”

“Hell, I’d hate to get in a fight with her little sister.”

“Well, that’s what started the whole thing.”

Tiny was incredulous. “You got in a fight with her sister?”

“Yeah. She kicked me in the balls.”

“Kicked you in the balls! What were you fighting about?”

“I accused her of living with us only to perpetuate a jealous rivalry with her older sister.”

“Holy shit. They sound like a pair.”

“Yup. You ought to come over for dinner sometime and meet them. The most beautiful couple of ladies in the whole world.”

Salman didn’t know why he told lies about his girlfriend. They just popped out. In truth, his girlfriend was a mousy sweetheart who taught sixth-grade English to Catholic schoolgirls. He loved her dearly and wouldn’t have her any different, but for some reason he wanted the ironmen to think he dated a hysteric sexual adventuress who had nothing better to do all day than shop for a new purse.

“God, are my balls sore,” he would say to someone as they waited in line for lunch in the cafeteria, pushing their orange trays toward the steam-heated food. Salman despised his own flirtation with normality. But he knew in his heart hewasn’t normal, and he wanted to make sure everybody knew just how not-normal he was, even if he had to tell some white lies to get to the real truth of his individuality across.

Tiny asked, “What’s VWPC?”

“Dunno,” Salman said.

“Maybe ‘virtual workstation personal computer.’ You think that could be it? A personal computer that uses the Internet to tap into extra processing power.”


“What’s Darrell think?” Tiny asked. “Have you talked to him?” Tiny knew that Salman and Darrell were friends.

Salman shook his head. “I could call him. Should I?” Salman picked up his telephone and dialed Darrell’s extension. Darrell’s office was up one floor. Salman got him on his speakerphone. “Hey, Darrell, I’m here with Tiny in my office. We’re talking about this memo. Why don’t you come down?”

Darrell said, “Why don’t you guys come up here?”

Salman sighed. “Just come down, man.”

“I’m in the middle of something.”

“But there’s two of us down here.”

Tiny tapped Salman on the shoulder. “Let’s just go up,” he whispered.

Salman rolled his eyes. “Don’t go anywhere,” he said to Darrell, then disconnected the line. “You can’t give in to him, Tiny. He always does that.” They headed out the door.

“Does what?”

“Aww, he makes minor moments into challenges to his status. He doesn’t want to come downstairs because he doesn’t want us thinking that we can order him around.”

“I don’t think that,” Tiny said.

Salman shook his head with frustration. “Of course not. But he’s got a hair-trigger personality. Last year, we were on the same project together … there were 12 of us, and we rotated the duties of making backup copies of all our work. Every day, it was somebody’s turn. But Darrell hated doing it – it was beneath him. He thought we should hire an undergraduate assistant to do it.”

They reached Darrell’s office. Darrell looked like a study in alternative fabrics: he wore sports sandals with neoprene straps, nylon jogging pants, a fleece baseball cap, and a casual coat made out of gray shag carpet. He worked very hard to maintain the image that he cared not a wit about appearances.

Darrell had a couple cans of cold soda waiting for them. He popped them open himself, wiped the condensation from the side with a napkin, and offered the sodas with the line, “See? We wouldn’t be having these in your office.”

Salman didn’t say anything. He wanted the soda, but Darrell had offered the sodas only as a way of winning the argument. If Salman drank the soda, it would be giving in. He held it in his hand. It was cool and wet. It was only a few seconds before he took a big slug.

“What do we know about this Andy Caspar guy?” Tiny asked.

Salman said, “He’s new here, two months new.”

Darrell objected to inferring anything from that. “He had to be sharp enough to get invited here.”

Salman said, “Not sharp enough to get picked for the Jolt.”

“You weren’t picked for the Jolt, either,” Darrell reminded him.

“I got screwed.”

“Screwed? How?”

“You took credit for my work,” Salman said.

“I did?”

“Mmmm. You did it all the time.”

Darrell shot back, “If I took credit for your work, wouldn’t Ihave been picked for the Jolt if your work was any good?”

That caught Salman without a comeback. Salman was just rambling. He didn’t have a legitimate complaint. Darrell finally said, “You know, we could just ask Andy what VWmeans.”

“Mmmm …” Salman concurred.

“Volkswagen,” Tiny said without thinking. “A cheap, simple, mass-produced computer.”

His words stayed in their minds.

“Oh shit,” Salman said, as the three young men came out of the building at noon. Parked beside the south building was a car he hadn’t seen before, a vintage orange Volkswagen bug, with chrome saucer hubcaps and sheepskin covers over the front seats. Andy Caspar was leaning casually against the car’s bubble hood. When he stood up at their approach, he was a foot taller than the car. There wasn’t any beanpole quality to him at all; he wore an alligator shirt hanging out over his khakis, but both were so faded that the look wasn’t preppy. His arms and shoulders weren’t flabby or bony. A red baseball cap shielded his eyes from the sun. His face was slightly freckled. People with freckles never have bad skin.

Andy shook their hands.

“Shotgun,” Darrell said.

“Tiny’s the biggest,” Salman said. “Let him have the front seat.”

“Sorry. Should have called it.”

They climbed into the car. Tiny sat behind Darrell. His knees pushed through the seat, gouging Darrell’s back.

“Cut it out, Tiny.”

“I’m not doing anything. You should have taken the backseat.”

It took them a while to settle down. Andy didn’t say much until they had dropped off the ridge and pulled onto the 280 freeway headed north.

“OK,” Andy said. He rolled his window down an inch. “My guess is you already know why I’ve asked you here, but let me make my pitch anyway, arright?”

Darrell and Tiny nodded. Salman stared out the window at a woman in a Mercedes two lanes over.

“OK. Darrell – how fast are we going?”

Darrell glanced at the speedometer. “Fifty-five.”

“And that Mercedes over there, how fast is it going?”


“The speed limit,” Andy said. “She could go twice as fast as me if it weren’t for the speed limit.”

“What’s your point?” Darrell said.

“For most computers today, the Internet connection is the speed limit.” Andy repeated what they already knew but hadn’t quite thought about in this context: at that time, June of 1995, the biggest rage was to connect via modem to the Internet and from there gain access to far more uses of the computer than could be conventionally stored on your hard disk. You couldn’t help but imagine that in a few years most computers would be connected to the Internet for several hours a day. The problem was that connection was slow. It was doubling in speed every year, but it was still far slower than the rest of the computer. A computer can only work as fast as its slowest link. Just as a Volkswagen performs almost as well as a Mercedes on a freeway, a cheap processor would work as well as a Pentium when the data coming in to it was regulated by the modem. “Power is going to waste,” Andy said, echoing what they had been taught was the ultimate sin, to waste their own brainpower. “You see, for the average person, they don’t need all that power.”

Well that may be fine and dandy for the average person, but as far as the ironmen sitting in the car were concerned, they didn’t build computers for average people. They didn’t relate to average people. They couldn’t imagine what went through the mind of an average person. Brilliant minds design brilliant products. But average minds, well, hell – they designed Water Piks.

They didn’t try to argue, though. To argue the point was to imply that the issue was up for debate, which it wasn’t. Mostly they just shut up and let Andy drive and talk.

And as they saw it, driving along that afternoon, the VWPC was not cutting edge, it was not cool, it would never make another ironman go “Wow.” At best it would look and act the same as any plain vanilla box-o-wires. At the end of the year, even if the toy was a roaring success, where would any of them be? A year behind, that’s where!

“Hey, look at Tiny,” Salman said.

The two in front glanced back. Tiny was stiff as a statue. His arms were suspended unnaturally. His head was dipped down slightly, the mouth open. He was breathing but his eyes weren’t moving.

“Don’t touch him,” Darrell said.

“Why not?” Salman said. His instinct was to jar Tiny.

Darrell said, “You’re not supposed to wake sleepwalkers.”

“Who says he’s sleepwalking?”

“Well, what do you think it is?”

“Maybe he’s having a seizure or something.”

“Here, I’ll roll down the window, put some wind on him.” Darrell did that, and soon Tiny’s eyes blinked, and then he was back.

Salman said, “Wow, man, you sure had us scared. You passed out or something.”

Tiny explained that it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence. “I feel just fine, though.”

“What is it?” Andy asked. “What causes it?”

“I’ve got a bad back, cuts off my nerves,” Tiny said. “Things go haywire.”

Salman reached forward and popped Darrell on the shoulder. “You shoulda let him have the front seat, man.”

“How the hell was I supposed to know?”

Tiny hadn’t told them the truth. There was a medical explanation – petit mal epilepsy – but Tiny wasn’t much of a believer in medical explanations. Even the doctors said stress was a factor, so Tiny didn’t blame anything but himself. He believed the epilepsy was just a manifestation of some fault in his mental approach to life. Somewhere, way down deep in the biochemistry of his body, at the level where thoughts were chemicals, his system had a bug.

Andy eventually drove them to the Peninsula Creamery in downtown Palo Alto, though there were a hundred faster ways to get there than detouring onto the freeway. They took a booth and ordered quickly.

The Peninsula Creamery was not one of those chichidiners where all the waitresses were young artists and the specialty was a $22 flaming cabbage, though there was an oyster bar across the street that catered to that crowd – a crowd that, at lunch, was composed mostly of software salesmen schmoozing purchasing agents. Through the Creamery’s big plate-glass window, the guys could see them at their sidewalk tables, wearing prescription sunglasses and tossing back shots of French water, sans gas. The Creamery was the ironmen’s type of place. Practical. Beside every booth was a chrome coat rack. All the forks were the same size and had the same number of tines, four. Nobody came around scraping crumbs off the tabletop while you were eating. They didn’t play music in the bathrooms, and nobody had ever paid attention to the lighting, except to make sure there was some.

“No talking until the food comes,” Darrell said, a bit perturbed by it all.

“Why? Why can’t I talk?” Andy said.

“OK, you can talk all you want,” Darrell said. “But I won’t listen.”

“Why? Am I offending you?”

“Don’t ask me. I’m not listening.”

“Why not?”

Darrell didn’t say anything.

“Christ, Darrell, I’m trying to make an important point here. I’m not going to shut up so you can eat your french fries in peace. Schoolkids can’t afford a computer, few people outside of America can afford a computer.”

Darrell slammed down the ketchup bottle on the table. The cap blew off and a dollop of sauce landed on his cheek. He swore. “They don’t make the Volkswagen Bug anymore, hate to tell you buddy.”

“Bullshit, Darrell. What do you think they drive in the rest of the world, Hondas with dual airbags? They build Bugs at VW plants in Manaus, Brazil, and in Puebla, Mexico – same design for 15 years. You know what a brand-new Volkswagen costs in Brazil? Two grand! A fifth of what the cheapest car costs here.”

“Two grand?” Tiny said, with interest. He didn’t know that. Tiny had never traveled anywhere. A new car, for two grand?For the first time it occurred to him that maybe somebody really could build a computer for cheap, if they had enough volume. Not him, but somebody. As he thought about this, he stuffed fries into his mouth like an assembly-line worker, one right after another.

Andy talked about how the VWPC was the kind of device that might bring “the other 50 percent” online – “the other 50 percent” were all those stubborn Americans who had never bought a computer despite having purchased cars, VCRs, and refrigerators. The “other 50 percent” was a sort of holy grail for the computer industry – a market they’d been unable to tap despite a blitzkrieg of hype. The conventional wisdom was that “the other 50 percent” would jump en masse, all at once, and whoever led them – whoever instigated the jumping – would go down in history as big as Jesus Christ. Because what would more likely jolt society out of its infinite loop than the other half of America jumping into the computer age?

Darrell felt that Andy had him all wrong. It would take more than a speech to win Darrell over. Words were comparatively cheap. Darrell wasn’t devoid of opinions on weighty matters, he knew all about the toxic hazards of chip manufacturing and the human rights violations of the countries where chip plants are located. Darrell was not a geek anymore, and he hated when people assumed that he was. His only enemy was hypocrisy, and the only virtue he thought worth praising was authenticity.

Darrell shot back. “Listen to yourself, Andy. We don’t disagree with your ideals. We just don’t see why we’re the ones to do this project. It’s an exercise in economics. Three hundred dollars of economics. I didn’t study economics. Tiny didn’t study economics. If we did, we’d be in Hoover Tower, not La Honda. We don’t worry what it’s going to cost. All that matters is what it can do. Then we turn over our project to some profitseekers who can worry how to get the cost down.”

Salman let out a little cough into his clenched fist.

Darrell said, “Turn your head when you cough, please.”

“I’m not sick. I just had a little something in my throat.”

“So what? You still should turn your head when you do that.”

“And cough toward the other table?” Salman shot back.
Darrell just shook his head.

They gave up talking awhile and went to work on their food. Andy had been careful not to recruit anybody older than him, since an older guy might resent working for someone who was only 29. But appealing to their ideals wasn’t working at all. Their idealism was a mile wide and an inch deep. He was going to have to really push their buttons. Andy had picked each of these guys because of their computing specialty, but it wasn’t going to be enough to just tell Salman, for instance, “I need a good graphical-interface guy, and you’re the best available.” Andy had to appeal to more primitive instincts. Take Darrell – Darrell seemed to like arguing, but once he was engaged in a fight he was so intent on winning that he stopped listening. This guy loved to fight. Andy had to get Darrell to see that by working on the VWPC, he would be fighting against the status quo at La Honda.

Andy was also worried about Tiny. The guy almost never spoke. He gave no clues. Most engineers don’t have any trouble speaking up, but Tiny was like a kid trained not to speak unless spoken to. Or someone accustomed to taking orders. Maybe he was waiting to be asked for his opinion.

Tiny stared out the window. A pack of ties came out of the oyster bar, patting their stomachs and reaching for their sunglasses. They paused on the curb, said something to each other, then crossed the street in the direction of the Creamery. They came in the back door and slid into a booth behind Tiny. Tiny glanced over his shoulder; there were five of them. One of the guys told the others about how this was a legendary place, then he started on some bullshit lie about how Steve Wozniak had drawn his original vision of the Apple on a napkin from the Creamery, and the napkin now hung in the Smithsonian. Tiny couldn’t tell if the guy’s audience knew they were being had. Then the waitress came, and they kept calling her Flo even though her name was Linda, and then one guy wanted to know if he could have wheat germ in his milkshake.

As he was listening, Tiny was thinking, That’s the other life for an engineer. They were lucky to be at La Honda at all. Maybe they were being too critical of Andy’s project. Building the damn thing might not be so easy; the $300 limit was so tight that conventional software couldn’t run on a computer like that. They would have to write an entire new library of software – not a small job. By the time lunch was over, Tiny had thought about it long enough to be intrigued … but then, on the way home – the short way – he was riding in the front seat and out of curiosity opened the glove compartment, where he found the car registration and saw that the VW wasn’t registered to Andy Caspar, it was registered to one Alisa Jennings.

Tiny passed the registration back to Salman, who said, “Hey, you, you don’t own this car!”

“I never said I owned it. It’s my neighbor’s.”

“You let us think you owned it.”

Darrell grabbed the registration. “Well shit, what kind of cardo you drive, Andy?”

“’84 Lincoln. It’s a piece of shit, though.”

“What, a Mark IV?”


“That’s a V-8!”

Andy nodded.

Darrell said, “Ahh, fuck you, man, you yuppie gas-guzzling hypocrite. Nothing’s worse than a hypocrite, man. Nothing.”

“But I never said I owned it!”

There was about a minute of uncomfortable silence. Salman tried to smooth it over. “Hey, you guys remember the joke about if Microsoft built cars?”

Nobody said anything. Finally, Darrell said, “Well?”

Salman said, “What?”

Well, what about if Microsoft made cars?”

“Yeah – you remember the punch line?” Salman asked.

“So what is it, for god’s sake!?”

“I don’t remember. I’m asking. I think it was funny.”

Darrell shut his eyes and pursed his lips. “Sometimes, Salman … you … Jesus.” He shook his head.

“What? What’d I do?”

Andy let the silence hang there for a moment. Then he said, “If Microsoft made cars … we’d all have to switch to Microsoft Gas.”

“That’s it!” Salman said. “That’s it!”
To which Darrell said, “Do you see me laughing?”

At about that same time, Francis was reading in his office when Hank Menzinger walked right in. The pallid engineer didn’t look up to acknowledge Hank until he was done reading the page – and by that time Hank had rested his butt on the windowsill.

Francis said, “There are two chairs here which have been specifically designed to be sat on.”

Hank would have none of it. “What the hell’s with this $300 computer project you’ve got in the works?”

Francis grinned. He knew darn well why Hank wouldn’t like the project. “What about it?”

“It’s a piece of plastic, a toy. When my sponsors hear about it – what’s that going to do to the reputation of La Honda, huh? When funders think La Honda, they think big iron, not plastic.”

“The projects are my turf, Hank. You just do your job, and I’ll do mine.”

“You’re making it hard for me to do mine, Francis, that’s what I’m saying. I have to raise money for this place. La Honda designs the computers that keep the margins high in our business. This, this piece of plastic … How do you think that’s going to make me look? I’ll be sitting in some congressman’s office in Washington with the heads of LSI and Motorola, and we’ll be arguing how we need Asian import tariffs relaxed, when in will walk some staffer with an article about this, thisPC lite, which suggests that of all people Hank Menzinger is the person trying to turn this industry over to the Japanese mass producers. And the guy from Motorola and the guy from LSI will look at me with a face like ‘What the hell are you thinking? You’re gonna kill the golden goose.’ I can see it all happening.”

Francis took great pleasure in seeing Hank squirm.

Hank said, “Why are you doing this to me?”

Francis answered bluntly, “To piss you off, that’s why.”

To piss me off?” Hank was incredulous.
“To give you a little feel of what it’s like when your work is undermined.”

“Oh, no – not this again.”

Francis’ face was not quite scarlet. “All you had to do was put a little clause in the license contract! A little clause – that’s all you had to do!” Francis was referring to his last chip design, the Falcon, a competitor to the Pentium. In order to make the Falcon fast, Francis had taken advantage of a procedure called parallel processing: the Falcon was actually two redesigned 486 chips side by side. The proper software would divide any operation into two parts and give each chip half of the problem.

When Hank had licensed the chip, Francis had wanted him to license it to be used only with software that supported parallel processing. And why not? – otherwise, the chip’s key feature would go to waste. But Hank had licensed the Falcon to Omega Logic, who was shipping it in PCs running 16-bit Windows applications that didn’t at all support parallel processing. Three million Omega computers had been sold at more than three grand a pop, and consumers had paid that gladly, believing they were getting a top-of-the-line chip. But the chip inside was being wasted! One-half the chip wasn’t even feeling an electrical signal! Francis’ design was being wasted!

Hank said, “Omega never would have agreed to that kind of clause.”

Francis threw up his hands. “You could have licensed it to someone else!”

“For far less money! We make $3 million a year in royalties from Omega, money which goes to fund many worthwhile projects here. We’d be in dire straits if we lost Omega as a sponsor.”

Francis sighed. They’d had this argument many times. The $300 computer was Francis’ little prank to get revenge … and what better person to have lead the project than an Omega graduate, a kid who Hank took special interest in? That was a great touch.

When they got back to La Honda, Andy asked them to come up to his lab, which was on the hill a quarter mile above the main buildings. His lab was just an aluminum-sided single-room trailer, about 60 feet by 15, with a baffled roof to dissipate heat. The punch-code lock on the shabby aluminum door wouldn’t stop anyone serious about breaking in. The walls were neither wood nor wood paneling, but wallpaper printed to look like wood paneling.

There were four desks with chairs, and when the guys went to sit down, it was a natural reaction to test how well the drawers slid in and out and to rub their palms over the desktop.

Andy began unpacking stuff from a box. He reached in and pulled out a quart-sized glass jar, medicine-brown in color. He set it down in sight of Salman. Andy gave Salman a big grin. Salman was easy; the guy was always telling macho lies about his girlfriend, which suggested he would join the project as long as he could see that it was somehow a way to prove his manhood.

“What’s that?” Salman asked.

Andy slid the bottle across the desk. Salman took it in his hands and stared at the label, which said Bolasterone. Below that, it said, 5 MG. For oral usage only. Below that, but not in very small print, it gave a long warning: Warning! This pharmaceutical product should be taken under the supervision of a qualified medical doctor only. Limit intake. If patient begins to see blood in urine or have any pain in the kidney area, see your doctor immediately.

Salman’s eyes grew wide. “What is it?” He handed the bottle back to Andy.

“Anabolic steroids.”
“Where did you get them?”

“They’re made in Mexico. My brother goes down there a lot, sends me a jar now and then.”

“What does it do? Does it give you muscles?”

Andy had him going. “It would, if I worked out a lot. But since I don’t, it just makes me mean and angry. Keeps up your stamina, your fight.”

“Wow. Is it safe?”

Andy unscrewed the cap on the bottle. “Sure, if you keep it to two pills a day.” With that, he poured out five white pills into his hand, shook them, and threw them into his mouth. He chewed them. They were really Vitamin C, ascorbic acid.

Andy held the bottle out toward Salman. “You want some?”

Salman’s head shrunk back into his body, like a turtle. “No way.”

“Darrell? Tiny?”

They grimaced and shook their heads. “Do you always take those?” Darrell asked.

Andy couldn’t hold it in any more. He started laughing.

“What’s so funny?” Salman asked.

“Sorry … I’m not very good at deception.” He gave another chuckle. “Any you guys want some vitamin C?” He held the bottle forward again.

Salman leaned forward and gave the bottle a sniff. He put his hand in and came out with a few. He sniffed them, put his tongue on one.

To get their respect, Andy said, “You know, I had a chance to work on the Jolt team.”

“You did?” Darrell said. This had clearly caught him off guard.

Andy lied. “Francis let me choose between that project and this one.”

Salman asked Andy, “How come you didn’t want to work on the Jolt?”

“I don’t know … well, I didn’t want to be just 1 of 30 guys, taking orders from Francis, stuck in some hierarchy. That’s not me, that’s not my style. You probably wanted to be on the Jolt, huh?”

“Well, sure.”
“So is being 1 of 30 guys your style?”

Salman had never thought about it that way. “Well …”

“Taking orders from some subteam leader who is in turn taking orders from Francis Benoit who is in turn taking orders from some product manager at the sponsor? That appeals to you? Let me ask you something,” Andy said. “At the end of the year, when the Jolt is done, other engineers around the country will know about it, and who do you think they will give credit to? Do you think they’ll give credit to all those 30 guys?”

“I guess not,” Salman admitted.

Andy took a chance with another lie. “When I told Francis Benoit about the VWPC, you know what he said? He was willing to let me give it a try, but he said he seriously doubted it could be done. He said it was damn near impossible.”

“He said that?” This from Darrell.
“I just said he did, didn’t I?”
“He thinks it’s a tough project?”
Damn near impossible,” Andy repeated.
Darrell grunted in appreciation.

Andy said, “Francis didn’t pick you for his Jolt team. What better way to prove him wrong than to achieve what he thinks is damn near impossible? What do you think, huh?”

He wanted them to answer together. If one volunteered, they’d probably all follow. “Salman?”

“Yeah. What do you think?”

“I dunno. I’m thinking.” He turned to Darrell. “What do you think, man?”

Darrell’s arms were crossed. From this defiant position he managed to shrug his shoulders, as if to suggest, “I’ll go along but I’m still wary.”

Andy turned to Tiny. He didn’t want to ask a question that Tiny could answer no to. “Tiny, let me ask your advice. Let me pick your brain for just a moment. You’ve been here a few years, been on a few projects. If you joined this project, how would we start? What would be the first thing we would need to understand before we started?”

This caught Tiny off guard. He’d been given a lot of orders from team leaders before, and he’s also been given a lot of intellectual freedom, but he’d never been asked for advice.

They all turned to Tiny. He was sitting with his chin in his hands, his elbows jackknifed on the tabletop. On each wrist he wore two athletic wristbands, darkened with sweat. As he spoke he looked down and away, toward the floor. “I’ve been thinking … Francis is wrong, it’s not impossible at all. And I can see that there’s not just one way to design a computer that would sell for under $300. There’s a whole set of quite different possibilities … so, well, it wouldn’t be like we’d just be assembling a train set.”

He paused and licked his lips. “It’s true that anybody worth their salt could design one, but they might design it the wrong way. And then, it would be just another brilliant idea that failed because of poor engineering. If someone else did this, and they did it badly, it would ruin the opportunity for better machines to come later.”

Tiny put his hands down on the table. “So it’s important, really important, that the first VWPC be good good good.”